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Apr 18, 2012

A league of their own?

This week's North of the Border looks ahead to the meeting of SPL clubs that could see a major change to the game in the country.

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN?

The stand-off between Rangers and Celtic and the other ten Scottish Premier League clubs, over changes to the voting system, has spilled over to envelop the other two governing bodies in Scotland, the umbrella authority Scottish Football Association (SFA) and the Scottish Football League (SFL), which controls the three divisions below the top flight.

A meeting of the SPL clubs on April 30 will address the Gang of Ten's proposal to move from the current 11-1 majority for major structural changes to a 9-3 model. This is directly linked to the uncertainty at Rangers, who may well face expulsion from the SPL if they are liquidated and re-form as a new company (newco) under different ownership. This scenario would give the Gang of Ten a unique bargaining power. As the fate of Rangers remains in the balance, deal-makers are trying to work out the strength of their hand before the rest of the cards have been dealt.

The SFL has long wanted change to the structure of Scottish football. The 12-team SPL has one relegation place, making it the safest division in Europe. This lack of ventilation is suffocating for the SFL clubs, many of which operate on the brink of extinction.

This week, unnamed senior sources at all three organisations confirmed that a new National Football League has been discussed at every level. The details of the structure of a new, united organisation have not been revealed - if they have even been considered. It may well be that the very notion, and the co-ordinated announcement of these talks, represents a police action from the SFA as infighting in the SPL leaves all concerned in a stalemate.

However, a unified national football league was one of the cornerstones in the review of Scottish football produced by Henry McLeish, the former First Minister, and remains a logical and principled reset option for a league structure that appears condemned from within.

TICKETS TO HIDE

The delay in the announcement of a preferred bidder for Rangers by the club's administrators was, at the end of last week, blamed on the SPL's announcement that it was to consider revised penalties for clubs experiencing an insolvency event. This appeared to further cloud the possible penalties likely to be incurred by any new owner of Rangers. The SPL, and the Gang of Ten in particular, were in the frame as yet another deadline came and went on the watch of Duff & Phelps, whose administration of Rangers continues to blaze its own trail.

The story this week has been that the Blue Knights - the consortium fronted by former Rangers director Paul Murray, and the only UK-based bid of the three under consideration - withdrew its offer. They were to pay a £500,000 bond to attain preferred bidder status and that money was to come from Ticketus, the company which financed the takeover of Rangers by Craig Whyte, the owner whose reign has come to a sticky end.

The Blue Knights dropped out on Monday, claiming Ticketus had jumped ship after receiving an improved offer from Bill Ng, who leads a bid from Singapore. Ng denied any deal had been struck with Ticketus. He now has only Bill Miller, an American businessman, to get around in his bid to gain control of Rangers.

The primacy of Ticketus in this process is distasteful in the extreme. It is a company that finances the pursuit of football clubs by individuals who are prepared to mortgage years of season ticket sales to win the day. They are starting to look like kingmakers in a process that has all the transparency of mud.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

The Scottish Cup final will be contested by Hibernian and Hearts; Edinburgh's two teams last competed for the trophy in 1896. Glasgow will be taken over by football supporters from the capital and Hampden will be sold out for a unique spectacle.

The stakes are incredible: Hibs have not won the Scottish Cup for 110 years and this is the handiest weapon available to any Hearts supporter during duels between supporters of the Edinburgh rivals. Were they in a final against any other team, they would be playing against all of that history and Hearts supporters would be praying for the continuation of the jinx.

Instead, it is their team who must deny Hibs the release of a century-old tension. Aside from the desire to lift the trophy and raise a season in which they have fought organisational failings and the continued late payment of players' wages to remain competitive in the top half of the league, the Hearts players are burdened with the fear of being the team that allowed Hibs out of their rusted cage.

Unlike Glasgow when the Old Firm clubs win their trophies, Edinburgh welcomes its champions with a city-wide parade, the players waving from an open-top bus. When Hearts won the Scottish Cup in 1998 and 2006, the party went on all weekend. Whoever wins this one, the celebrations in one half of the city may result in short-term absenteeism on such a scale that it could provoke a localised double-dip recession that could only be stabilised by a massive increase in the sale of alcohol and novelty hats in either maroon or green.

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