Reshuffling the SPFL

Life is far from normal at the moment, so it’s natural to look for things that provide familiarity so that the world takes on a slightly more recognisable feel amidst some dark times indeed.

Scottish football’s contribution to this familiarity hasn’t been football, but for it to provide for us it’s signature of an administrative shambles played out in the media.

We now know that the 2019/20 season below the Premiership has ended, and that it’s likely that even the top-tier will be wrapped up shortly if the SPFL get the nod from UEFA, so the question has moved to what next season will look like.

We simply don’t know when football can or will return, anyone that claims to know otherwise is simply false.  Uncertainty is not a mark of a failure of knowledge, it’s an honest appraisal of a situation we’ve never faced before.

But when football returns, and thankfully it will eventually, it will need to reflect our new reality.  It will also need to seek fairness for clubs that have had their progress stunted in the 2019/20 season.

After the saga of last weekend of the vote that never was from Dundee, a reconstruction task force has been set up by the SPFL with Hearts chair Ann Budge taking the lead.

However, the consensus is growing that the teams that were leading their leagues before the shutdown this year should be rewarded, while the ones trailing their divisions should not be punished.  So that means at least some sort of enlargement at the top of the game and knock-on effects further on.

Scottish football and its fans love to talk about how to make the leagues work better than they do at the moment, but so many of the ideas fall short in lots of ways.  I’ve been a fan of an expanded top-flight for a while, but although I’ve previously argued against a split I’ve come around to see its advantages in keeping the league interesting earlier on in the season.

I could sit and pick apart the different models available, but there’s so many out there that it would take too long. So instead I’ll add my contribution to the long, long list of proposals out there too.

The principles that I think any new system should follow are that:

  • Teams should play roughly the same amount of games as they do at the moment, with no more than 40 in total in a season.
  • Any splits in a league must give teams something to play for.
  • Because the new SPFL-Sky Sports TV deal allegedly requires 4 games between Rangers and Celtic per year, there needs to be a mechanism for that.

Therefore, my idea for the reconstruction at the moment is this:

How it would look based on 2019/20 tables as now

Premiership (16 teams)

16 teams, with 4 coming up from the current Scottish Championship to join the 12 from this year.

All teams play each other twice, home and away.  Then the league splits into 3 groups: Championship playoff, Europa League playoff and Relegation playoff.

The top 4 after 30 games go into the Championship playoff and play each other once more home and away, carrying forward their points total.  The winners would qualify for the Champions League automatically, and the 2nd place team qualifies for the Europa League automatically, with the 3rd and 4th teams falling into the Europa League playoffs.

The bottom 4 after 30 games go into the Relegation playoff, again playing once more home and away building on the points total they had for the start of the season.  The bottom two teams are relegated automatically, the top team are safe, and the second from the top goes into the Premiership playoff (much like the 11th team in the league does now).

Now, for the teams finishing 5-12 in the league, they go into the Europa League playoffs.  This takes the form of a two-legged knockout competition to decide who gets the final Europa League slot through the league (with the Scottish Cup winners taking the final of Scotland’s three places).

The tournament follows a set structure, much like existing playoffs, and ends with one team left from the 5-12 teams.

They then play a two-legged playoff against the team that finished 4th in the Championship playoff, then the winner of that plays a two-legged playoff against the team that finishes 3rd.  Then that winner makes it into the Europa League for the following season.

Those play-offs could look something like this:

Of course, if the Scottish Cup winner has qualified for the Champions League then the final of the Europa League playoffs need not be played.

What I think with these proposals is that it gives everyone something to play for throughout the season, a bigger league always creates the problem that mid-table teams have less to play for – so this makes it more interesting further on.

Challenge League (10 teams)

From here on things look more normal, with some minor adjustments (including removing the name Championship – it doesn’t work in Scotland because unlike in England it isn’t the top level of a football league!).  The Challenge League retains its ten-team, four games per team structure, with the difference that the top two teams are promoted automatically and then the next two teams are involved in the playoffs for promotion.  3rd plays 4th in a two-legged tie and then the winner plays the 2nd team in the Premiership’s Relegation Playoff.

Going down works the same as before, 10th team is relegated automatically and 9th is in the Challenge League playoff.

League One (10 teams)

Same as before, nothing changes but the teams!

League Two (10 teams)

Almost the same as before here, but with one automatic relegation spot and one playoff spot.  This means that the winner of the Highland and Lowland league playoff goes straight up, and then the other team plays-off against the 9th placed team from League Two.

In terms of making up the teams of League Two it gets a little trickier than it is for the league above. Kelty Hearts and Brora Rangers have been declared the winners of the Lowland and Highland leagues respectively, so they should be promoted. The leagues have been declared finished, so technically the 2nd placed teams are sorted as well – and that would mean Bonnyrigg Rose and Inverurie Loco Works go up.  However, Fraserburgh are 3rd in the Highland League behind Inverurie, and only 4 points behind with 5 games to play, so there’s a question whether it’s fair to let Inverurie have the advantage.  So there I’d propose a one-game playoff when possible between the teams to decide things.


I think what these proposals provide is the change that’s required to achieve fairness for clubs across the board; an exciting top-flight that keeps teams engaged all the way through; and relative familiarity in the lower leagues.

Most teams will play 36 games in a season, although this could be as few as 32 or rise to 40 as a maximum depending on playoff involvement.  This works out about right I feel, easing fixture congestion for many teams over the current setup, and maybe allowing for a winter break with fewer midweek games to compensate, while still providing enough home games to keep revenue flowing.

It also means there’s more movement between the top-tier and the second-tier, which gives more clubs a chance to play in the top flight, as well as more opportunity for movement at the bottom of League Two into the Highland/Lowland leagues, making the relatively new pyramid system even stronger.

They are also proposals that could be longer-lasting rather than a simple one-season fix to stave off the unfair results of this year’s stunted season.

Will these proposals look like the final ones that come out of the reconstruction task force, though? Almost definitely not.  But I hope they represent a relatively forward-thinking, but workable, idea that could make our game more interesting and that takes stock of the difficult times in which we live.

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