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Oct 30, 2009

Summer season can be Scotland's salvation

Walter Smith's recent warning that Scottish football is dying has sparked an angry debate but his words have never be nearer the truth. The game north of the border is sadly in the midst of a worrying downward spiral.

Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic are still licking their wounds following European defeats to Romanian minnows Unirea Urziceni and Hamburg, while alarm bells are also ringing on the international front as Scotland failed to reach next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa.

To make matters worse attendances at domestic games are also beginning to dwindle with less than 5,000 at New Douglas Park to watch Celtic beat hosts Hamilton. Falling gates makes it even harder for clubs to raise revenue in any bid to increase the quality on the pitch.

That's why it's time to heed Walter's dire warning before it's too late.

Despite the obvious fears, Scottish Premier League chief executive Neil Doncaster reckons it's possible to improve the game north of the border. Doncaster has even launched his own "Family Champions" initiative aimed at improving standards.

This involves sending undercover families to all 12 SPL grounds and getting them to score the clubs on how they deliver on family experience. Despite Doncaster's best intentions his blueprint to salvage Scottish football is hardly revolutionary.

Perhaps a better plan of attack would be to at long last sanction summer football in Scotland. That would then mean there's a better chance of drawing back more fans to watch the games as there would be less competition.

There's an army of armchair supporters in Scotland who can now watch English Premier League games in the comfort of their own home or get their football fix from the leagues of Spain, Italy or Germany.

Moving the SPL fixtures to the summer months would mean they'd be the only show in town giving the clubs a much higher profile. It might sound radical but football in Scotland is in need of radical change to really shake things up.

Smith's diagnosis of the game may well be harsh but it's certainly justified.

It has had fans, pundits and all the so-called experts clamouring for an answer to the well publicised problem. There are a few chinks of light provided by the emergence of rising stars like Aberdeen's Fraser Fyvie and Craig Thomson at Hearts, while Hibs have one of the best youth systems around.

But the reality is that if they prove to be top class players they will undoubtedly be cherry picked by the cash-rich English clubs. James McCarthy is the classic example. After cutting his teeth at Hamilton he found himself on his way south to arguably the best league in the world when Wigan Athletic agreed to pay £1.2million for his services.

There's no obvious solution which would revitalise the Scottish game and not even the experts including Doncaster can find an answer.

So why not try playing in the summer months?

It would certainly be a more attractive proposition and most probably mean an end to the countless postponements for bad weather. Of course the counter-argument is what happens when major tournaments in the summer are on like the World Cup finals and European Championships? But surely there could be some way round that if it was going to save Scottish football and provide the game with fresh appeal.

The bottom line is there's a lack of cash in Scotland and the majority of potential investors are attracted by the glitz and the glam of the English Premier League. Even the big two Rangers and Celtic would welcome a further injection of money to allow them to bolster their transfer activities.

Smith was forced to trim his Gers squad during the close season to shed the wage bill but at the same time remains under severe pressure to raise standards on the pitch. You don't have to be Einstein to work out that's an almost impossible theory to follow.

Mowbray has been given a little more freedom in the transfer market although he's never going to be able to match the spending power some of his Parkhead predecessors once had.

While Smith has provided the ammunition for what is proving to be one of the most keenly debated arguments regarding Scottish football he's also suggesting his own answer. The former Scotland boss remains convinced both Rangers and Celtic can only prosper in the future in some sort of continental league because he reckons they'll never be welcomed by the English Premier League.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore is openly against the move which provides yet another obstacle in their quest to move down south.

Fan power alone will always make the Old Firm an attractive commodity although it's still unclear if they'd be allowed to leave their home country to pursue their dreams elsewhere. The SPL have already made their own feelings clear by insisting they want their two biggest clubs to remain in Scotland.

If Rangers and Celtic are ever going to break free from the shackles of the SPL then they'll certainly need to improve on their performances on the continent. For now the biggest concern for both Smith and Mowbray will be trying to keep their clubs in European competitions beyond Christmas.

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