Glasgow kiss

For those not keeping up at the back, a quick recap.

Rangers – that is, Glasgow Rangers – hit a financial speed bump and went hurtling into a pile of consequences made from sponge fingers and quicksand. Whilst the team as it then was slowly drowned/had the HRMC kick them in the face, a ‘new’ Rangers was set up in a smooth/not very smooth TUPE transfer farrago.

The teams of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) voted almost unanimously to deny ‘new’ Rangers a place amongst them, leaving the Scottish Football Association (SFA, no jokes please) to soothsaye grave threats against the future of the game north of the border. Deny the new regen Rangers a place at or near the top table, the SFA warned, and it would cost the industry Tenty Hypergazillion Pounds, not to mention derail the SNP’s independence bid and force the womenfolk of the smaller islands into prostitution.

 In the face of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Daily Record – Scotland’s answer to a question nobody asked – the SFA went round the other clubs in the League system to definitely not blackmail them into voting in favour of putting “newco” into the First Division rather than the basement Third. Rather than “won’t somebody think of the children”, the SFA has been screaming “won’t somebody think of ESPN funding and televised SKY games every Sunday?!”.  As a tactic, it’s close to the landlord of a backstreet dive persuading the regulars to allow a bankrupt old soak back to the bar even with his colossal bottom pinching problem.

In the ‘pro’ corner, the SFA and friends in the press (and, oddly, on TalkSport) point to the Scottish game as being irrevocably damaged if “newco” is denied a place in the First Division, suggesting that the lack of guaranteed money from four Old Firm derbies and all the rest of it would be too much for the game to absorb. Over in the ‘anti’ camp are most fans and, it seems, smaller clubs, for whom the notion of allowing Rangers something approaching a free pass is distasteful. Somewhere in the core of all this is the dubious euphemism “sporting integrity”, used a code word for “Rangers bring the money in, you clean shirt idiots”.

Losing a large team in England, say Man Utd or Chelsea or Arsenal, would impact every team and division in ways that even the Rangers situation hasn’t suggested yet. However I can’t see the English FA being so blatant as to effectively dangle a wallet over an open fire if the new regeneration of a ‘big’ team were not allowed an automatic place in the Championship. Over in Scotland the lack of much an impact zone beyond the Old Firm plus Edinburgh’s Hibs and Hearts makes the hole left by Rangers all the wider. It is, to be blunt, a necessary lesson for Scottish football to learn – if ‘newco’ Rangers were allowed into  Division One rather than Three, it would be a signal for other teams to carry on spending (and, for the purposes of libel laws, carry on doing absolutely nothing else out of the ordinary in the context of tax regulations.)

It’s not that fans, or me for that matter, wants to see ‘newco’ Rangers forced into the Scottish equivalent of non-league. For the crime committed, there must be a suitable punishment, and a free pass into Division One for the sake of television money is not suitable. If Scottish football has so few “pulls”, and so little alternative beyond the top of the SPL, that’s their own fault.

The danger is the ‘old firm’ (small letters) getting the arms twisted amongst the smaller clubs to help out the Old Firm (capital letters) get their monopoly back within two seasons rather than three or even four. Much smaller clubs in England have been knocked into the “one dog and his groundhopper” leagues, a threat which should be hanging over ‘newco’ if justice had any strength about her. For the good of Scottish football – which needs an institutional overhaul far beyond mere division constitutions – the SFA need to heed the call from fans and smaller clubs alike and accept Rangers as a Third Division side. Any other alternative would be as far removed from ‘sporting integrity’ as Irn Bru is removed from palatable foodstuffs.

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Titanic, deckchairs, football ground

Working for the Football Association must me remarkable fun, and by “remarkable” I mean “barely”, and by “fun”, I mean “an alternative to slamming your dangly bits in a car door.”  It’s not as though football fans are ignorant of the constant stream of brain farts guffing from the collective mind of the FA, we’ve suffered down the years, from the Wembley reconstruction mess to the constantly bewildering way managerial choices are mishandled. Do they get rejects from The Apprentice to make these choices? I don’t want to imagine how that might work out. Sorry, Fabio, it’s just not working out (you being statistically the best manager we’ve had in 40 years, and all), so just dance in your pants, dance in your pants!

What the FA has splooged all over the place this week is somewhat niche in its audience though no less an example of them getting a simple task utterly Andover-over-Timperley. Having looked into how to resolve pressing issues amongst the cluttered number of divisions in non-league football they have announced the equivalent of shoving paperwork into a top drawer for looking at ‘you know, later, like when I’ve less, you know, busy?’.

In short, the FA was tasked with sorting out the perennial problem of cutting back the weeds and cleaning up the rock garden that is the middle bits of the non-league pyramid. As currently constituted, the pyramid resembles a capital “A” written by a drunk, blind monkey, on fire, in space, which makes the latest decision all the more frustrating and self-defeating. Pushing back decisions into the never-never might work for the full-time, professional leagues; it tends not to have much of a positive outcome for semi-professional or amateur sides. Non-league football has been allowed to develop its current wobbly state precisely because decisions on the geographic spread of divisions and the number of teams in each league have been deferred and delayed year-on-year.

In broad terms, each step down provides for each division to become more geographically specific. Blue Square/Conference Premier is a national league, fed by the geographically spread Conference North and South feeder divisions, themselves fed by the Northern/Midlands/Southern feeder divisions, and so on. Due to the unpredictable nature of the football season, with some relegations/promotions not confirmed until April or May, fitting teams into the right place can be an arduous (read, improvised) process. Don’t need to tell fans of Durham or Bishop’s Stortford or King’s Lynn about being plonked into the wrong leagues. Having to travel across the East Coast Main Line for every away trip, Durham have recently requested to be demoted from the Northern League Division One for financial reasons. King’s Lynn were wound up by the Courts. Bishop’s are wound up by not being able to travel south for any away game in their “northern” leagues.

By expanding divisions at Steps 3 and 4, the FA is putting more stress and strain on the financial constraints suffered by teams who can’t add extra away days without feeling the pinch. There’s no argument for expanding the Premier League or Championship, so how can it be justified further down? What compensation will the FA offer for the inevitable damage to non-league grounds after four (or more for ground share clubs) games being played across winter or spring?

From Step 4, the FA should look at streamlining the feeder leagues whilst ensuring the geographic spread is as tight as possible. It’s not the kind of thing which looks to me as brain surgery, and yet the great and good suits always make the easiest task the hardest execution. There can only be one consequence from this week’s decision – more games for clubs which can’t always afford it, more games for fans who can’t always travel, and less confidence amongst teams towards a streamlined, relevant league structure. Deferring decisions on this can’t wait any longer.