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The great escape

This week, Dundee continue their attempt at a great escape and Neil Lennon misplaces his anger as the PFA Player of the Year shortlist is announced.

Business as usual?

Dundee are in the middle of an escape bid as daring and ill-fated as that which ended with Steve McQueen parking his Triumph motorcycle in the middle of a lot of barbed wire and some angry Nazis. They have won three on the spin, but they need to win three more and St Mirren must lose their remaining matches. Just as the Cooler King never made it across the Swiss border, so the SPL's season-long losers will need more than a covertly-constructed series of tunnels to avoid the drop. Unless...

This week The Scottish Sun dug a little deeper into the peril Hearts are in as a result of the financial collapse of the two companies to whom they owe a combined £25 million, Ukio Bankas and UBIG, both based in Lithuania and formerly under the control of the Hearts owner, Vladimir Romanov, until he resigned from both boards and, he claims, lost his substantial fortune.

The report suggested that a Scottish firm has been primed to act as administrators should Hearts fail to protect themselves from their creditors. It was read with wide eyes in Dundee because should Hearts enter administration before the end of the season, they will face a 17-point penalty for doing so and would almost certainly finish below Dundee.

Should they enter administration during the close season, when their primary income stream dries up, Hearts will start next season in the SPL with a penalty to be confirmed, but of no less than 12 points. There was a time when that would have meant a likely mid-table finish, but this is a squad that has been cut and cut and now has less meat on its bones than some of the wiry teenagers promoted from the academy to the first team during this season.

This report did not break new ground. We have read before that Hearts are on the brink and they have never stood up. Hearts responded to this week's reporting by stating that it was "business as usual" reminding us that these stories emerge "every few months" and that there are agreements in place regarding their debt to the failing Lithuanian institutions.

However, the story was followed up by confirmation that Ukio Bankas, which owes £400 million and has closed all its branches, has a bankruptcy hearing on Thursday of this week.

This is now a club operating without a safety net. They carry a debt that is far beyond them without consideration of their primary asset, Tynecastle Stadium. The markers they have run up are held by institutions under pressure to call them in. If that happens, the task facing the group of supporters currently trying to buy out Romanov's shareholding will be not to rescue, but to rebuild from scratch.

Play-off peril

After the collapse of the proposals for league reform last week, the 12 SPL clubs met again to discuss compromise measures. This meeting ended with no progress beyond the promise of another meeting. There have been so many meetings.

Up for debate this time were various riffs on the theme of relegation play-offs. At the moment the SPL is the safest league in Europe. Twelve clubs, one gets relegated - and there have been times when even that hasn't happened. Nowhere in Europe is there worse ventilation between the top two divisions. This is possibly the worst thing about the SPL and that is saying something.

The one-up-one-down model kills sporting drama at the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division in the closing weeks of the season. North of the Border does not have extensive data on the matter, but links have been made between sporting drama, matchday attendances and interest from broadcasters and commercial partners. Combined with an absolutely vicious fiscal cliff from which the top league hurls its weakest member, like some annual sacrifice to a pagan god of greed, the current model also presents a situation where relegation is almost certain to bring at the very least the threat of administration.

It is possible to read all of this as an argument for change, but not if you view it from within the SPL. This week play-off proposals failed to gain traction because of concerns that increased risk inherent in any play-off system was not set off by a softer landing in the First Division. Neil Doncaster, the always-entertaining chief executive of the SPL, regretted the failure of the original plans, which included an "all-through financial distribution model", which would have evened out the lethal revenue drop between the top two tiers inbuilt to the SPL.

The SPL control the financial distribution model. If they want to create a softer landing, they can do so. The SFL clubs whose income would increase exponentially overnight will not vote against such reform. However, so far that "all-through model" that has unanimous support has been tied to the league structure that was rejected last week. We are now mining down to the fundamentals behind the SPL. The league was formed because those at the top of Scottish football believed they were worth more than those below them. Now they are holding up reform because they fear the consequences of entering the wasteland they created when they broke away. This is a predicament of their own making and one to which they hold the solution.

Polls apart

Last week, North of the Border considered the contenders for Player of the Year and ended up placing an X next to the name of Andrew Shinnie of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. That was before the shortlist was announced for the PFA Scotland version of the award. Shinnie was there, along with Niall McGinn of Aberdeen, Leigh Griffiths of Hibernian and Michael Higdon of Motherwell.

Neil Lennon, the manager of the champions, Celtic, described the lack of representation for his players on that list "abysmal" and started a row that rolled on for a few dreary days.

The footballers asked to vote assembled a little more than a list of the top goalscorers in the division (Shinnie has scored 15 and contributed in many more behind the prolific Billy McKay). It's not the most subtle job, but it does recognise unusual achievements from all four players. Lennon places more value on Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama than their peers do and the market will surely agree with him if, as has long been predicted, the manager's phone rings in the summer with bids for both, along with Gary Hooper, his most reliable goalscorer.

In the meantime he can look back on the history of these awards and see they sometimes live on the mantelpiece not of the finest footballer in the land, or the most valuable, but those who have a particular impact. This year's winner will certainly fall into that category.


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