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Dr. Strangeleagues or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the SPFL Split

Thought the SPFL Premiership league structure was complicated? You’ve seen nothing yet. Jamie Kilday uses all his brain cells to try to understand some of the other alternatives  in European football and discovers that SPFL Split might not be that bad after all…

 

This season is the eighteenth year of ‘The Split’ and I’d be lying if I said that I have taken it to my heart. I was sceptical of its introduction at the time and still remain sceptical now. but why? Maybe it’s time for me to acknowledge that it is here to stay and learn to love it.

Fans can have their say on the split yearly when SPFL secretary Iain Blair, whose job it is to manage the competition, hosts a Q+A on the SPFL league structure in June after the end of the season, and occasionally in April following the announcement of the post-split fixtures. In 2011, prior to the twelfth season of the split, Iain was asked;

“Do you see the split ever being scrapped?”

A question he has faced every season since its creation, and one he answers in a similar way each year, on this occasion he responded with;

“It is not really a question of the split being scrapped but it might disappear as a consequence of a different league structure being adopted… Ultimately, some clubs will be happy with their post-split fixtures – others less so.  But unless and until clubs vote to adopt a different league structure, the split and the imbalances it creates are here to stay.”

 

Iain Blair

Iain Blair

 

Imbalances are rife with the current set up and within its time it is not only fans that have voiced opinions about the split. In the last couple of years, Kilmarnock, Hearts and Partick Thistle have all put in formal complaints to the SFA due to the fixture imbalance. On six occasions in the last ten seasons, one side has had 20 away fixtures and only 18 home fixtures. The reason for this is due to the fact that when the SFA decide on the 33 pre-split fixtures they have to predict who they think will be in the top 6. And it’s not really a prediction as it’s purely based on who finished in those positions last season. The question was posited in the SPL fixtures Q&A prior to the 2012/13 season and Iain Blair’s response was;

“The fixture list has been compiled so that if the top six remains the same as last year then all clubs will play 19 home and away matches and there will be no requirement to reverse any fixtures after the split. However, the unpredictable nature of football means that only once since the split came into being in 2000/01 has the top six been the same two years running!”

Every year Iain Blair seems open to the idea of entertaining a different league structure and yet the SFA hasn’t. The fact that this process still hasn’t changed is fascinating as the inherent problems are there to see.

For example, this season Partick Thistle will go into the split having faced Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee, Kilmarnock and Rangers twice at home. While it is unlikely that all these six teams will finish in the same half of the league it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. If that was to happen, competitive balance would dictate that they play the remaining fixtures away from home, but that would mean they only had 16 games at home in total over the season, compared to 22 away.

In the case of the 2016-17 season, Partick Thistle complained to the SFA when the fixtures were announced that their pre-split fixtures only had one home game against Celtic and Rangers, yet league rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dundee had two home games each. They assumed that they would not finish in the top six and that the other two Glasgow clubs would. Against their own apparent belief,  Thistle did finish in the top 6 which meant that, come the end of the season, they had played 20 home games and 18 away games.

The perceived financial imbalance of having four home fixtures against the two big clubs was restored but as a result, there was a sporting imbalance. Perceived underachievers Ross County only had 18 home games and finished seventh despite finishing with four more points than Thistle, another freak of the split.

At this point it is worth noting that Scotland is not the only league in Europe to have a split. Of the 54 UEFA leagues, 16 have a split of some kind. The SPFL and the Northern Ireland Football League are the only two leagues with a twelve-team league that splits after 33 matches.

The other 12-team-leagues have different versions; The BH Telecom Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovak Super Liga, Ukrainian Premier League and JD Welsh Premier League all have twelve-team leagues that split after 22 matches , then the two halves play home and away after the split, thus negating the issue of teams playing uneven home/away matches. It does mean that teams who potentially could have had a chance of getting a European spot now have ten games playing largely against relegation fodder for the last third of the season.

There are five nations that have twelve-team leagues that only play 33 games, each team facing each other three times. None of these twelve-team league formats are perfect as they either lead to uneven home/away matches or condemn teams to relegation battles.

One way to tackle these issues so that teams outside the top half still have a chance of European football is through a playoff system. Nothing shows this better than the absolute madness that is the Belgian First Division A.

Belgian League system. Easy.

Belgian League system. Easy.

Since the 2009/10 season they have operated several variants of a playoff system; the current one being particularly complex; First Division A has 16 sides which play each other home and away before then the league splits into three groups, with each team’s points halved (and rounded up if they were on an odd number of points).

A champions group made up of teams 1-6 contest the league title and the European places. Then an additional two groups of six are created, made up of nine of the remaining ten teams in the top division and the top three teams from the second division. They are split as follows:

Team ending  7th, 9th, 12th and 14th in top division together with teams placed 1st and 3rd in second division go into one group. The other group will consists of the teams finishing 8th, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th in the top division and 2nd in the second division. Are you still following? Good…because there is more.

The winners of the these two  groups will play each other to decide which team goes on to play a further playoff for a European place against the team finishing 4th in the champions group. Remembered the team that finished last in top division before their split? Their season just finishes there and then, after 30 games. The Danish Superliga has since adopted a similar format but with a 14-team league.

Figuring out the Belgian league structure

Figuring out the Belgian league structure

The most common European league format is a ten-team format with each team playing each other 4 times and this was also the structure of the top tier of Scottish football before it expanded. It is difficult for leagues with more than 10 and fewer than 18 teams to have a league format that produces enough fixtures without some sort of split or playoff system.

For Scottish football, removing the split would essentially involve either returning to ten teams, or the more radical approach of introducing six more clubs to the Premiership and creating an 18-team league.

With that, you would create new challenges such as how you would divide up the remaining 24 SPFL teams? There is also the question of whether teams would be open to only facing Celtic and Rangers once at home in the league and the potential loss of revenue that would mean. Then again, for four seasons the top tier of Scottish football managed to cope with the loss of Rangers without the perceived financial Armageddon.

Research that was started with the hope of finding something better for Scottish football, has ended with the knowledge that the world of football league structures is a scary place (and that’s without even entertaining the madness of the MLS). I’ve had to learn to appreciate that the current SPFL Premiership format isn’t perfect but it’s better than many.

For the foreseeable future it isn’t going to change, so you might as well start loving the SPFL Split.

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Jamie is a Mancunian fanalytic and Scottish football blogger. A former local & hospital radio presenter, he once interviewed Angela Rippon about bacon, Jason Byrne about circuses and Martin Compston about Northern Soul. He is behind the twitter account @fitbainScotland.


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