WHEN the top flight clubs announced a 12 team league back in 2000, they done so with an innovative move to split the table in half after they played each other three times. After that, the top six sides would come up against each other another once and likewise the bottom six, promising a frantic end to the season at both ends of the season.
In theory it was a good idea. In reality, it has caused 18 years of utter chaos!
Year after year since it’s inception in 2000/01, the end of season fixture list constantly throws up complex issues, with teams often playing at the same venue three times or playing the same opponent at their ground for a third time, and one team getting two more home or away matches over the season instead of an even 19-19 share.
This year, however, the SPFL have reached a new low with the publication of the end of season fixture list, designed to set up a thrilling climax to the season.
The circus of the last Old Firm game, where the scenario of Celtic clinching the title against their arch rivals became a big possibility, was used as an excuse to unnecessarily delay the release of the fixtures.
Waiting until nine days before the first fixture was inexcusable, especially when it was confirmed eight days ago what teams were confirmed to play in each half of the table.
Whilst it’s understandable that talks over who played on what dates needed consultation with the Police and TV companies, proposed fixture lists should’ve been drafted taking into account relevant permutations. In this case, two set of fixtures should’ve been prepared in the three days after it was confirmed that Hearts were the last top six side, and ready to be selected as soon as Celtic’s win over Hamilton was confirmed. These fixtures should have factored the scenario of when Celtic could, mathematically, first clinch the title, with the worry of the Rangers game being scheduled around it.
The fact they waited until after the weekend to begin discussions then allow it to drag on for three days was ridiculous, causing intrigued fans to become anxious as they look to make plans for the remaining five games of the season. What made matters worse was that the SPFL twitter page showed a GIF image of a goal celebration along with the text “When you get the news that the fixtures are on their way.” It may be seen by the SPFL as a bit of fun, in reality it was patronising and very disrespectful to the supporters who were beyond fed up with the ridiculous delays. The fact they chose to go down this route rather than apologise for the inconvenience cause shows their utter contempt for the supporters of all clubs.
When the fixtures did come out, there was the usual scenario of teams going to another ground for a third time (that fate awaits Kilmarnock and Hearts who go to Ibrox again). What was highlighted the most, though, was that the last Old Firm game has been scheduled for the second weekend of the post-split fixtures, meaning that Celtic will need to go to Easter Road next Friday to get the three points they need to clinch the title before that match.
Of course, it’s understandable why Police Scotland are desperate to avoid a potential title clinching Old Firm match given the events of 1999, when Rangers clinched the title at Parkhead in a game fluttered with unsavoury incidents on and off the pitch to say the least. They don’t want a repeat of that horrendous day, where Hugh Dallas was hit by a coin, fans went onto the pitch to attack players and officials and there were numerous arrests in and around Celtic Park as emotions spilled over as fans crossed the line.
However, there is no guarantee that not scheduling the Old Firm game for the first weekend of the split, as had been suggested before the possibility of this being Celtic’s title clinching match, that Brendan Rodgers side will get the three points they need at Hibs, a side who have already taken two 2-2 draws against them this season. Arguably, this is Celtic’s most difficult fixture and if Hibs take more points against them, coupled with wins for either Aberdeen or Rangers in their weekend matches, then then the scenario that the SPFL and Police Scotland were desperate to avoid will arise, something that will anger fans further given the ridiculous delay in the release of the post split fixtures.
The only way of making the split work properly, and avoid the annual rage of fans desperate to for the release of the fixtures or the imbalance of home and away matches, is to increase the top flight to 14 teams. The idea would be each side playing each other twice until the 26 game mark then the league splitting into a top six and bottom eight, with those respective teams playing each other on another two occasions. Whilst there are still flaws with that system, in that the bottom eight play four more games than the top six and miss out on two more visits from the biggest clubs with the biggest travelling support for income, the fact that the split would guarantee an equal number of home and away fixtures against each team and no chance of an imbalance of home and away fixtures overall is a positive. Let’s face it, if the League are determined to hold onto the split, this is the only way of making it work properly.
Whilst managers, players and fans have cause for complaint, it is a bugbear when club directors moan when the fixtures go against them. After all, it was the decision of nine of the current top flight (plus Dundee United who were in the top tier at the time) who implemented the 12 team league with split and there hasn’t been any desire shown to change to another system. If they don’t like the set up, they need to change it and not extend 18 years of moaning over the problematic split.
Now that the fixtures are out, the clubs, of course, will get on with the action and bring a thrilling climax to the Premiership season, with European places up for grabs and the battle for survival keeping interest in the game high. We can only hope that the SPFL and clubs listen to the feedback given by the fans continuously fed up with the complications of the split and unnecessary delaying of the fixtures release.
The SPFL’s disgraceful conduct over the time taken, and contempt for the supporters, is indicative that such improvements are a long way off!