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May 9, 2013

Reconstruction ripe for the picking

This week, hope of a new Scottish competition is renewed, Michael Higdon pays hommage to 'The Hangover' and Dundee dive bombs to First Division.

Cherry-picking for beginners

The past two editions of North of the Border have reported on failed attempts to reach an agreement on league reconstruction. First, the crazy super-split model favoured by the majority of SPL clubs was shot down by two dissenting voices, those of the chairmen of St Mirren and Ross County. Then, last week, the top 12 failed to reach consensus on play-offs between the top two leagues, but at least they fessed up to the fear of relegation that was preventing them from widening the trapdoor at the bottom of the Europe's Safest League.

Now, despite all of this, and after those behind the original plans told us it was their way or the highway – the highway to hell, in a handcart no less – there has been compromise within the top division and agreement on plans that now look likely to be signed off in time for next season.

It is worth remembering that the SPL, most notably through its chief executive, Neil Doncaster and the most vocal critic of the dissenters within, Aberdeen's Stewart Milne, had insisted that their plans were a complete and unbreakable package and that cherry picking the best bits and discarding the bonkers parts was not possible. Nobody ever told us why this was not possible, it just wasn't, right?

Well, it turns out it was possible. And really rather easy.

The proposed new financial model will see a flatter distribution of money through the divisions, resulting in exponential rises in revenue for the First Division clubs in particular. There will be a single governing body for football in Scotland, instead of the three ugly sisters – the SPL, SFL and SFA – who currently chase each other around Hampden, waving rolling pins and screaming unrepeatable things across the foyer, embarrassing guests and regular staff alike. There will also be a pyramid system, opening up the pro leagues to the various semi-pro competitions up and down the country.

Incredibly, it looks like there will also be play-offs, adding much-needed threat and promise between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division. The details of this crucial addition are still be confirmed, but the model that exists in the lower leagues, where the second bottom club of the higher division plays off against the second, third and fourth from the division below may be replicated.

These have been brutal and duplicitous negotiations, but some good may come of them. It remains almost inconceivable that there will not be some form of sweetener for SPL clubs who are giving up safety and money on an apparently philanthropic whim. Perhaps the SFL, the next staging post for the proposals, will sieve out any grit in this elixir.

The Hangover

It is possible to imagine Michael Higdon's first moments on Monday morning as some kind of homage to 'The Hangover' movie franchise.

Scene one: Interior. Glasgow police cell. 8am

Our hero, the leading goalscorer in Scotland's top professional football league, awakens with little memory of the previous evening's events. He is confused. He is wearing a tuxedo, or at least the remnants of one, and at the foot of his bed is a statuette engraved with his name, Michael Higdon, as the SPFA Player of the Year. This is good. On the other hand, the bed in question is a skanky, low-suspension, paper-thin mattress under a scratchy blanket that appears to be fashioned from the hair of a Yorkshire terrier. The aromas competing for his attention are unmistakable: urine, vomit and disinfectant. The walls are adorned with graffiti that includes a direct and vulgar critique of the police force and several attempts to capture the essence of the male reproductive organ. Michael is in jail. This is bad.

In his mind, a montage plays - he is scoring another goal for Motherwell, high-fiving little Henrik Ojamaa, his strike partner; he is at the SPFA Player of the Year award dinner, hearing his name read out – his name, not that of Leigh Griffiths, Niall McGinn, Andrew Shinnie or any of those moany-faced Celtic players who didn't even make it on to the list. His name. It is his night. He is a golden god.

And now, he is in a cell, hungry, hungover, alone and a little teary. Who is responsible for this injustice? Bradley Cooper? Mike Tyson? Neil Lennon?

Three hours passed between Higdon receiving the award from his peers and his arrest outside a nightclub called The Corinthian, in Glasgow, for an alleged assault. He was released at 9am, when he had been scheduled to meet reporters to talk about his achievement: the award, the 27 goals, the second-place finish and the clubs about to offer him the biggest contract of his career. It is to Higdon's eternal credit that he did go on the record shortly afterwards. The big striker spoke of his regret, yet maintained last Sunday was still the best night of his career. He spoke of how disappointed he was about allowing himself to be dragged into the kind of situation that had ended with his arrest. He was, he said, a country pub type of guy. The Corinthian is not a country pub, but still, there are rules.

Dive bomber

So Dundee finally got relegated from the SPL. The scale of their task was outlined here last week, but the way it played out added injustice to the hurt that had long appeared inevitable.

Dundee were leading Aberdeen, who were down to 10 men, when they conceded a penalty to a flamboyant piece of penalty-box deceit by Peter Pawlett. The Aberdeen player has since been called on it by the SFA and looks likely to cop a two-game ban.

The damage done to Dundee by one dive and by one team of officials' inability to see through it is huge. Had they held out for the win, they would have needed two more victories and for St Mirren to gain no more than a point in their remaining two games. A long shot, but a shot nonetheless.

Dundee's manager, John Brown, oversaw a brave fight on the pitch and had been refreshingly old school in the way he had called out St Mirren during the run-in. The man they called Bomber during his often violent playing days was left with the kind of simmering resentment he eats for lunch and an extended contract at Dundee. If reconstruction goes through, that offer comes with more money in the bank and an increased prospect of promotion. It's the deal of the week.

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