Good things come to those who wait. Well, we now know that's definitely no longer…
There’s been a lot of focus on the Premiership this week from the English media after Steven Gerrard was unveiled as the new Rangers manager. Listening to pundits discuss a league they clearly know nothing about guarantees two things; that they’ll call it the ‘SPL’, and they’ll talk about the split with patronising bafflement.
The split has its critics – fixture mismatches, lost gate receipts and the near-certainty that whoever finishes seventh will have more points than the team in sixth are all problems that occur on a yearly basis and are all prominent concerns. But the split is one of Scottish football’s greatest assets.
Most of Europe’s biggest leagues are all but settled now and have been for weeks. There are only a handful of meaningful games left to be played in the Premier League, there’s very little to play for in Ligue 1 and Serie A, while pretty much everything is sewn up in La Liga. But that’s not the case here in Scotland.
Every weekend we’ve got big games at both ends of the table, thanks to the split. The idea of organising the fixture list so that a club must face all their nearest rivals in the run-in is a fantastic one and yet it’s so often downplayed and criticised. It’s an excellent test of a side’s collective will to win. In order to achieve their objective – whether it be winning the title, qualifying for Europe or avoiding relegation – a squad of players must face each of their direct opponents and hope to better them. Every game matters, every goal has consequence. And there are few leagues in Europe that can say that at this time of the season.
This season’s race for second looks set to go down to the final day and there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much drama without the split. Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs all face each other – while trying to match each others’ results against Celtic – as they negotiate their difficult run-ins. Whoever performs best in these crucial games is likely to finish the campaign in second.
It’s exactly what football is about and the split’s implementation in 2001 should be celebrated. If you want to qualify for Europe, or avoid relegation, what better way to prove your worth than to better your rivals against your direct competitors?
There’s an argument to be made that we benefit from a competitive league and that a fixed fixture list would have thrown up important matches anyway, and perhaps there is some truth to that. Partick Thistle finished in the top half last season, this year they could get relegated. Hibs have came straight up and challenged for second place. Kilmarnock began the season looking like relegation certainties and they’ll finish very comfortably in fifth place. There’s no doubting that the Premiership is a tightly contested league.
For some smaller clubs, however, the split can occasionally be financially damaging. Last season Motherwell, Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies all complained because the fixture list only guaranteed them two home fixtures out of six against the Old Firm: games that attract larger crowds and much-needed revenue. The unpredictable nature of Scottish football makes predicting the league table going into the split incredibly difficult and so imbalances like this will occasionally occur. It’s an unfortunate form of collateral damage, but there is good reason for this.
It’s the same reason Hearts will play more away matches than home games this season. The Tynecastle side finished in the top half but had nothing to play for – European qualification was near-impossible and there is no perfect solution to the fixture list. If a club has to lose out, isn’t it better if it’s a club whose season is already virtually over? The post-split fixture scheduling isn’t perfect, but it normally manages to retain parity for teams whose matches will have a significant impact on positions of consequence, like European qualification spots or the relegation zone. If someone has to play an extra away game, then it is only pragmatic that teams with little to play for are the first to lose out.
This is the same reason a seventh-placed team can finish with more points than a sixth-placed team. A good run against the league’s bottom-half clubs often results in this, which is likely to happen if the gap between the two sides was narrow going into the split. But then again, they’ve got an easier run in. They should pick up more points. It’s an imbalance, but an inconsequential one.
For a minority of clubs, their season is over as soon as the split takes effect. Motherwell and St Johnstone, for instance, have had little to play for but professional pride. Relegation wasn’t a threat and they couldn’t progress beyond seventh place. But this gives coaches valuable game time in which they can experiment tactically or blood some young players. A competitive match, with little responsibility attached to the final result, is the perfect time to try something new.
But this is only the case for a handful of clubs, especially at the beginning of the split. For the most part, we get a succession of definitive games that can make or break a club’s season. It’s a fantastic test which ultimately produces a fair outcome, with the added bonus of drama every weekend. At a time of the season when competitive games are hard to come by, Scotland has them in abundance. It’s about time we started celebrating it.