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Dec 22, 2010

The times they are a-changin'

If ever there was a time for a dramatic restructuring of Scottish football, it must be now.

With crowds steadily dwindling, the product suffering and fresh investment becoming harder than ever to source, the game north of the border is in anything but a beautiful state. Within the corridors of power at Hampden Park, though, there's been something brewing for a while that could provide the perfect catalyst for the dawn of a new era.

Former Scotland First Minister Henry McLeish recently delivered the second part of a damming report and he certainly didn't pull any punches. McLeish is calling for change within the Scottish Football Association and has also recommended plans for an overhaul of the league system.

"The SFA lacks coherence, focus and a sense of overall purpose, is ill-equipped to deal with current problems and has failed to plan effectively for the future," McLeish said.

The former Labour politician, who turned out for East Fife during a professional playing career, is also calling for the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League to merge. His vision includes a two-tier SPL with ten teams in each division, as well as regionalisation of lower leagues, and he's also proposing the season kicks off earlier to accommodate a winter break.

McLeish's measures are hardly the most radical proposals ever lodged but they would at least go some way to breathing new life into Scottish football, which at times seems light years behind other European nations.

His long-awaited verdict has sparked an inevitable debate with some cynics questioning why McLeish didn't seek counsel from experienced heads like Craig Brown, who was recently unveiled as the new Aberdeen manager.

Some of the 12 member clubs within the SPL have already voiced their concerns about the ten-team proposal - probably fearing the threat of relegation.

There could also be immediate changes introduced in the current campaign, with calls for the season to be extended after several recent fixtures were postponed due to the wintry weather that is gripping Scotland.

After originally giving his recommendations on how to revitalise youth football, the second part of the McLeish dossier also, to an extent, mirrors some of the plans formulated by the SPL's strategic review group. However, will the changes go any way to breaking the stranglehold the Old Firm currently has on the game?

One of the biggest criticisms constantly levied at Scottish football is that it's too predictable with Rangers and Celtic the dominant forces. Most leagues throughout the world could also be hit with the same accusation, with England arguably plagued by a similar issue.

Heavyweights Chelsea and Manchester United have continued to battle it out for honours and, while the supporting cast of Arsenal and Liverpool have tried to break the recent duopoly, there is still a parallel with the Scottish situation. Now Manchester City and possibly Tottenham could at least add a new dimension.

On current form, Hearts are at least making a fight of it as they trail second-placed Celtic by just two points, although they have played two more games than the Hoops.

Scotland boss Craig Levein, who once managed the Jambos, has welcomed McLeish's proposed changes, although he continues to question whether they'll make for a more level playing field and accepts the SPL title is destined to remain in Glasgow for the foreseeable future.

"This will be the perennial question won't it? Hearts split the Old Firm a few years ago but it is extremely difficult," Levein said. "A lot depends on what the Old Firm teams do.

"They are not exactly overflowing with spare cash just now and that might bring them back to the pack, rather than the other way round. Hearts would be the ones closest to them right now."

Meanwhile, other more wide sweeping suggestions on how to reinvigorate the game have included a call from Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson to introduce a top-four play-off system to the SPL as part of the reconstruction talks.

Thompson reckons that would at least provide an avenue for a team outside of the two Glasgow giants to win the title. Predictably, Celtic boss Neil Lennon and his Rangers counterpart, Walter Smith, have both blown the idea out of the water.

"I don't think that's fair at all," Lennon said. "In fact, I think it's absolutely ludicrous. If you look at the gap between first and third or fourth, it's quite big.

"So, basically, you're saying your season goes down to two or three games at the end of the season, which is absolute rubbish. Play-offs for European slots might create a bit of an interest, but certainly for the championship it's an absolute no-no."

However, McLeish's proposals and those of the SPL steering group will inevitably face opposition from different groups.

In fact, the six clubs not involved in the SPL reconstruction talks plan to hold a meeting of their own. Chairmen from Dundee United, Hamilton Academical, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone are understood to be ready to approach Neil Doncaster and Ralph Topping, chief executive and chairman respectively of the SPL, to demand talks.

Representatives from the remaining top-flight clubs - Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibernian, Motherwell, Rangers and St Mirren - drew up plans for reducing the SPL to ten teams, and there is anger at the lack of consultation with other members before they publicly announced their proposals.

Dundee United, Hearts, Inverness and Kilmarnock are opposed to the prospect of a ten-team league and have floated an idea of their own involving play-offs at the head of the table. It is also understood that St Johnstone, who are keeping their options open along with Hamilton, are unhappy at the lack of communication between the steering group and the clubs on the fringes.

Therefore the future plans for the Scottish game, for now and rather aptly, remain very much on ice.

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