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Bananas split

This week's North of the Border examines the imbalance of the Scottish Premier League divide as Rangers' European ban provides added incentive this year.

BANANAS SPLIT

This weekend's fixtures are the last before the SPL divides into two groups of six, a move that has become its signature and the source of much bemusement to those looking in from elsewhere.

In favour of the split is the artificial importance it provides for mid-table teams to the matches leading up to the junction. Those teams race to get in to the elite group before the door closes, like some kind of footballing Indiana Jones. Normally, they're only in it for the money, as opposed to any archaeological artefacts or the thwarting of the Nazis.

The four non-Old Firm teams get one more match against Rangers and Celtic and more prize money for a higher finish. However, this season, the expulsion of Rangers from UEFA competitions due to their failure to exit administration means that those four are jostling for three European spots, one of which will be a Champions League qualifier. From a sporting point of view, this is an exciting bit of fall-out from the implosion of Rangers. For Dundee United, St Johnstone or Motherwell, the Champions League qualifiers are a lottery ticket: if they somehow squeaked through, the gap between the riches that would await them in the group stages and the budgets that got them there would be a game-changer.

However, the race to the line is not altogether fair. One of the absurdities of the split is that, with five games in the run-in, one team ends the season having played 18 home games and 20 away games, while another has an extra fixture at home and one less away. This contradicts one of the central pillars of league competition and, this season, spits in the soup of a fascinating scrap for European football. St Johnstone trail Motherwell by five points but, like Dundee United, on the same mark, they have the momentum. Yet St Johnstone will play an extra away fixture this season and will be doubly disadvantaged as the team the visit three times is Motherwell, their direct competitors for that Champions League qualification spot.

The St Johnstone chairman, Steve Brown, revealed when the post-split fixtures came out this week that the SPL had said his club had benefited from the extra home game in previous seasons, so they were given the raw deal this time. That rationalisation only appears acceptable in the madcap context of the split. Otherwise, it's clear that St Johnstone's work this season is undermined by a problem that never seems to impact on the calendars of the league's biggest clubs.

With the title likely to be won by Celtic in their last game before the split, the UEFA spots are the only show worth catching in the top six. In the bottom half, the idea, if there is one, is to have all the teams fighting it out to avoid the single relegation spot that makes the SPL the safest league in Europe to play in. That never happens, and this season at least there are two live contenders for the drop. Thankfully, neither Hibernian nor Dunfermline have an imbalanced run-in and it should be a fair fight.

REBELS WITH A CAUSE

The Group of Ten, as the non-Old Firm clubs pushing for a change to the voting structure in the SPL have been branded, were criticised this week by Walter Smith, the former Rangers manager, and Ralph Topping, the league's chairman, who wrote to each of those clubs' chairmen a letter asking them to stop being so uppity, sit down at the table and eat their vegetables.

Rangers' administrators, Duff & Phelps, said it would vote with Celtic to oppose any change to the voting structure, which requires an 11-1 majority to pass major changes and therefore gives the Old Firm a veto on any issue that is not in their mutual interest.

At the same time, several of the prospective bidders for Rangers, and Duff & Phelps itself, admitted this week that liquidation is a strong possibility for the Ibrox club. Any new owner would recreate Rangers as a new company (newco), with as many of its assets as survived the process but not its massive liabilities. Any such newco would need to reapply for membership of the SPL and those ten clubs would have an ace card to play in negotiations over change to the league's bad habits.

There are two broad and conflicting sets of interests that have been brought into focus by all of this. On one hand, the SPL sends out scare stories about sponsors running scared amid all this uncertainty and refreshes its main argument against the structural reform that was suggested earlier this season - that any broadcaster, first and foremost, is into Scottish football for the Old Firm and that their preferential treatment is an economic necessity.

On the other side, several of the Group of Ten are moving away from that kind of thinking and toward their supporter base. Hibernian's outgoing managing director, Fife Hyland, argued that for these clubs, gate receipts vastly outweigh broadcast income and that the time has come to put supporters first. He was talking, for starters, about kick-off times that move across the week to fit in with a budget broadcast deal (Hibs play their five post-split matches at five different kick-off times).

At Motherwell, a supporters group this week surpassed the first target for funding to assume control of the shares donated to the club by former chairman John Boyle. They get two board members, with more to follow if their momentum can be maintained. A similar takeover at St Mirren was only halted last November when one of the principle donors withdrew at a late stage in the process.

The budgets of most of the Group of Ten are now those of break-even businesses who rely principally on their supporters for income. Their demands and those of Celtic and Rangers, who require ever-increasing revenues and international interest, and for whom UEFA competition is a lifeblood and not a lottery ticket, have not been this far apart since the SPL was formed, with all its flaws, in 1998.

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