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Jul 18, 2012

Three is the magic number

North of the Border examines what Rangers' entry to the Third Division means for Scottish football.

THE THIRD WAY

With a little over two weeks to go until the start of the season, the line-up has been finalised - revealed at the end of a dramatic series of votes and a final meeting of the SPL clubs which confirmed that Rangers will play in the fourth tier of Scottish football.

Such is the incongruity of that statement few could believe it until that final conference at the national stadium in Glasgow. The clubs in the Scottish Football League, the three divisions below the SPL, who had voted against a Rangers newco (new company) starting life any higher than that, feared their decision would be circumvented at the 11th hour. One club, Queen of the South, released a statement claiming that it had been suggested to them that, regardless of the vote, the SPL would ensure that Rangers played in the top two tiers.

The meeting did not last long. It ended with Rangers in the Third Division, where they will play their first league match against Peterhead, a club who were playing in the Highland League while Rangers were winning nine consecutive championships in the 1990s. Before that, Ally McCoist's team will begin its new life at Brechin City in the Ramsdens Cup, a competition for teams outside the top league and, as such, the only domestic trophy the old club could never win.

NEW POWER RANGERS

What will the Rangers team look like at the start of the season? Last season, McCoist could field a team of internationals. This season, he will have only one - Lee McCulloch, who has played his last game for Scotland and decided to take the drop with the club he supports. He will retire with a unique place in the hearts of the supporters who do the same, but he is not enough to guarantee superiority in the bottom tier.

The rest is down to the punishment coming Rangers' way from the SFA. The Glasgow club took the governing body to court to overturn a 12-month registration embargo and other penalties for bringing the game into disrepute during the calamitous chairmanship of Craig Whyte. They must now negotiate their own admission into the SFA, who themselves cannot countenance a year without Rangers operating at some level. Rangers' hand is strengthened further by the reality that, with an embargo, it is quite possible that they will remain in the Third Division for an additional season.

Without it, they could sign players good enough to drag the new club through the first couple of challenges with ease. Yet the SFA must be seen – by FIFA as well as the rest of Scottish football – to be sanctioning Rangers for their rule breaches. It's another big fork in the road. In one direction, a team all but guaranteed safe passage through the bottom two leagues in two years; in the other, one that could get stuck a while longer, albeit with a homegrown team that could connect with their supporters in a way unimaginable to fans of either Old Firm club until now.

Charles Green, the frontman of the mysterious Sevco group that bought the assets of Rangers, claimed he did not understand how playing in the Third Division was not in itself punitive. The club he controls is a new entity. It has to start at the bottom, regardless of its size or its links with a famous club that was liquidated due to gross mismanagement. The club has only gained that place by eventually assuming the SFA membership of Rangers and so avoiding the rigorous and competitive application process that all new clubs undergo.

Therefore, they must assume the penalties that would have been due to that club. Hopefully, Green was just being cute. The only other possibility is that Rangers are being operated by a dunce.

CHAIN REACTION

The fall-out of the big decision was that Dundee, a club that was in administration twice in the past decade, take Rangers' place in the SPL.

The Dundee derby is back on the fixture list but Barry Smith, Dundee's rookie manager, believes he needs six new players to have a chance of staying up. As the other SPL clubs slash budgets and sign nobody, he may be underestimating the value of an experienced and stable team.

In any case, the risk-reward decision-making of his board does not suggest he will be granted his wish. Dundee almost missed the boat to the big league by failing to hand in their registration document to Hampden. It turned out they sent their striker, Graham Bayne, who drove the form from Dundee, on the east coast, to Glasgow. They gave him £20 petrol money and he made it with 35 minutes to spare, answering once and for all those who have criticised the big man for a lack of pace. It's a big laugh, but in there you'll also find the harsh fiscal realities of the new-look SPL.

Further down the leagues, Airdrie United, a club that assumed the identity of Airdrieonians, went bust, and bought out the league membership of Clydebank, damning them to extinction, move up to the First Division. Their place in the Second Division is taken by Stranraer, with the all-new Rangers filling the hole in the Third Division.

VANISHING PLAY-OFFS

Finally, when the SFA and the SPL were pushing hard for Rangers newco to start out in the First Division, they offered the SFL teams a smorgasbord of sweeteners to the deal. These included play-offs from the SFL to the SPL, starting this season. The SPL is the safest league in Europe. One team from 12 go down and that ratio is the lowest – and therefore least exciting – out there.

After failing to secure the vote, the play-offs were taken off the table by the SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster, who, in the same press conference, continued to talk of the terrible cost the league faced if, as expected, the headline broadcasters either withdraw or offer a reduced rights deal. Relegation-promotion makes pretty good television, but the clubs that make that call are the ones who would be threatened by the drop.

The deal on the table also included an expanded SPL, with most reports stating that a 16-team model was being discussed. In a series of supporter polls, this was the favoured option. These people were bored with a 12-team model featuring a split, where the teams play their competitors four times per season, excluding cup competitions.

An expanded SPL is either the right thing to do or it is not. Almost every decision-maker in this awful mess has spoken of "the good of the game", yet is hard to interpret their actions as being taken for anything other than the good of themselves.

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