Monday, August 10, 2009

Livi-ing the dream?

So Scotland’s lower leagues kicked off on Saturday.

Dundee, powered by spending that is the envy of most SPL clubs, started with a win over Morton. The hope at Dens Park will be that they’ve done enough to buy promotion.

But although the cash offers an advantage, money on its own is no guarantee of success. Inverness will be looking to bounce right back up – their prolonged stay in the top flight has given them an SPL mindset and they’ll be eager to prove last season, however inconvenient, was but a temporary blip.

Elsewhere, Dunfermline will be aware that each season in the First Division makes it that much to escape back to the SPL.

But really what does any of that matter when the SFL is so clearly in thrall to a cult of amateurism? The lower divisions of Scottish football are never going to be a hotbed for brilliant football and multi million pound deals – that doesn’t happen when you’re the smallest of sprats in a miniscule pond.

That doesn’t mean they can’t provide drama and intrigue, bring through exciting talents and encourage clubs to become focal points in their community.

If all that was the case then supporters and interested neutrals would have looked on Saturday with optimism at the thought of a season full of potential, full of the highs and lows that make football so enduringly appealing.

Instead we got a shambles. And the blame for that lies with the incompetents that run the Scottish Football League. Everyone of those men (and, inevitably, it’s all men) should be asked to hand over the blazers and disappear.

I have nothing against Livingston. I’m delighted for their fans that they’ve survived. I fear that they remain unsustainable but they’ve had a stay of execution which offers time to prove me wrong.

To survive to the start the season they needed a number of things to fall into place. Amazingly, and at the last possible minute, the jigsaw came together. Livingston were spared and, thanks the largesse of the SFL, they remained in the First Division.

By committing themselves to sparing Livingston the SFL contravened their own rules. My guess is that they feared a club dying in the present climate. With money so tight Livingston represent the most extreme case of a general trend. The blazers feared that the lights going out at Almondvale would lead to a flurry of closures and implosions elsewhere.

So they broke their own rules but they did it with reasonable justification. The business sense of propping up struggling clubs is questionable but the decision being taken on compassionate grounds is entirely understandable.

So there we were. Livingston saved. The SFL compromised but intact with a full portfolio of member clubs for the new season.

And then the amateurism began to mingle with the malevolence of those little men in their blazers. Livingston, the First Division club with the First Division business plan, were told – with what? 24 hours notice? – that they would actually be playing in the Third Division. Just like that.

Resentment that Livingston were given special treatment and lingering resentment at the behaviour of the owner who drove Livingston to the precipice seems to have motivated the SFL into what accounts to an act of murder against a football club they had just saved.

And so the new owners, who stepped in with their own cash thanks to the apparent benevolence of the SFL, were royally screwed. You would like to think the consortium’s previous links with Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton – and some of the ill will that was left behind – had nothing to do with the knife in the back. You’d like to think that but you’d almost certainly be wrong.

Malevolence and small minded bitterness is what the people who form the labyrinthine subcommittees of the SFL and SFA do best. These men are the baddies from a hundred Ealing comedies. But this time nobody's laughing.

They gave to Livingston and then they took away. Because they can. And if there’s one thing a blazer likes it proving that he has power.

Understandably Livingston didn’t want to complete their fixture before the laboriously long appeals procedure had run its course. No problem said the SFL. Only you’ll start in the Third Division on minus 15 points if the appeal goes against you. That appeals process is fundamentally flawed – what else could it be? – because the people who sit in judgement will largely be the people who made the original decision.

My own view has long been that our attitude to the lower leagues is misguided. There shouldn’t be such resistance to closures and there shouldn’t be the constant rush to elect new members when the worst does happen. Relegation from the bottom division would also help to freshen things up.

But none of that has happened. Instead we’re left with the farcical situation of the SFL allowing Livingston to continue, apparently in the belief that they could be a viable business, only to then turn round and make it virtually certain that the business plan was doomed to failure.

Whatever else has gone on at Livingston the fans and players don’t deserve that.

What I find most depressing is how unsurprised I am. You expect the SFL to be run by incompetents. To their last blazered belly they never disappoint.

The game needs fresh ideas and a fresh approach. One governing body for all football run by professionals with the passion, drive and wit to make things happens would be a start.

It’s time for a night of the long knives at the Scottish Football League. Be quick though, because you can be sure they’ll be planning to stab you in the back first.