State of flux
In this week's North of the Border, the restructuring of Scottish football causes consternation and the January transfer deals begin.
With the SPL on its winter break, supporters of the clubs in the Scottish Football League were driving to their games when SFL chief executive David Longmuir came on BBC radio to announce that his organisation, the SPL and the SFA were in agreement over proposals for a change to the structure of league football in the country. If the published and posted reactions of supporters since is a fair representation, it is a wonder Scotland's roads did not see a spike in accidents between 2 and 3pm last Saturday afternoon.
As discussed here some weeks ago, the SPL model for change is three leagues in a 12-12-18 structure. So the current top division of 12 becomes a top division of... wait, there must be more to it than that. Ah, yes. The big change comes in the split in the top two leagues. After 22 games, 12-12 becomes 8-8-8, with the top tier playing for the championship and European places, the middle eight, comprising the bottom four of the SPL and the top four of the First Division (rebranding pending), play for the remaining four places in next season's top division and the remainder play to stay in the second tier.
There are so many questions still to be cleared up it seems foolish to ask them all here. The most ambitious part of these plans appears to be the belief of the powerbrokers - and all 12 clubs in the SPL have endorsed the structure - that this can be implemented in time for next season.
Supporters in Scotland have, every time they are asked, been behind an expanded top division which would end the prospect of playing the same team four times in the league each season. Of course, it is exactly this practice that the SPL want to perpetuate, as eventually those teams will include Rangers alongside Celtic, and that fixture is the whole ball game for SPL PLC.
They are far more likely to talk about the need for 36 league games and the revenue that generates. A division of 16, for example, would mean six fewer games, or three fewer home fixtures per season. Longmuir stated on Saturday that his organisation had suggested changes to the League Cup to fill the gaps, but they were clearly shouted down.
With all three governing bodies in agreement - and a merger of those three bodies seems to be part of the deal - the smart money is on these proposals going through. However, if they win the argument with the member clubs of the SFL but not with the supporters of teams across Scotland, there could be a stand-off between the people running the game and those watching it. Previously, that was nothing to be afraid of for the governors, but last summer supporter pressure influenced the decision of many club chairmen on the votes that decided where Rangers would reboot. A catastrophic campaign by the SPL and SFA to crowbar them into the SPL not only ended in defeat, it weakened the standing of both of those bodies.
These changes come around with all the frequency of Halley's Comet and perhaps the greatest danger in all of this is that a conclusion is reached in haste and without the level of consultation the debate merits. The industry is looking for a solution that works financially, while its customers want greater influence in defining a product with which they are currently dissatisfied.
"I think there's an educational exercise that we need collectively to go through," SFA chief executive Stewart Regan said. "We'll be working very closely with [fans group] Supporters Direct in order to make sure that those messages are delivered." As long as the shot-callers think that their role now is "education" and the "delivery" of their message, and not conversation and possible compromise, then Scottish football's future will be steered by a small group of men unelected and largely unloved by those who watch the game. And it could all be done in the blink of an eye.
THE JANUARY MEN
There has been an unusually high level of activity as well as always-fun speculation so early in the winter transfer window.
The headline act, as far as done deals go, is Ryan McGowan, who completed his transfer from Hearts to Shandong Luneng Taishan in China this week. The 23-year-old agreed a two-year contract that will reportedly earn him over $1m, while Hearts will bank around £400,000 for a player in the final season of his contract.
A little earlier, Motherwell sold 23-year-old forward Jamie Murphy to Sheffield United for an initial £100,000, which helped enable them to knock back an offer of £170,000 from Lech Poznan for their Estonian striker Henrik Ojamaa. Their goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, is reportedly a pre-contract target of Aberdeen, but they will face competition for the consistent Republic of Ireland squad member.
Bristol City bid £150,000 for Kilmarnock midfielder Liam Kelly, who is having a fine season as his contract winds down. Kilmarnock are still burdened by a debt of a little under £10 million and operate around break-even. They are also one good week away from the European places and staring at the same kind of equation Motherwell faced before they sold Murphy. If Kelly can get them one place higher up the table, he could be worth far more on the pitch than in the balance books.
At Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a place in the semi-final of the League Cup and second spot in the SPL has been noticed. Barnsley this week held talks with Terry Butcher, the former England captain who manages the Highland club. The construction and coaxing of his rag-tag bunch to the brink of a first Hampden final and flirtation with the European places may yet be enough to persuade Butcher to see out an incredible season, at least. Much may depend on how much of his team stay in place, with Andrew Shinnie, their ace at No. 10, already linked with Aberdeen as his contract runs down. Danny Devine, a defender released by Fleetwood Town, has joined Butcher's gang for the business end of the season.
One pre-contract is signed and sealed already. Ross County's captain Richard Brittain has been among their best as they continue to tough it out in their debut season in the SPL. He has agreed to join St Johnstone for next season, an illustration of how difficult it will be for Derek Adams, their ambitious young manager, to move the Highland club forward on a bargain budget.