Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Play Off, Play Off And Play The Game

Walter Smith and Neil Lennon appear to have spent much of yesterday singing from the same hymn sheet.

Not Christmas carols at an ecumenical festive service.

More songs of condemnation aimed at Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson.

Thompson has suggested that the SPL should look at play-offs. Not the oft mentioned relegation play offs. No, he's after championship deciding play offs between the top four sides at the end of each season.

Which has induced a certain hysteria among the Old Firm management. "Nonsense," "ludicrous" and "bollocks" sum up the tone of their responses.

Smith and Lennon have probably missed the point. Thompson would probably expect to see blue snow falling on Christmas Day before he sees his plan become a reality.

His aim, I think, is to convey his disappointment at the plans put forward by the SPL and to show that other systems are available. And maybe have some preprandial fun along the way.

He will also have known that he'd be criticised for cooking up a system that damages the integrity of the season long league championship. But he might argue that works at both ends of the table.

If clubs are expected to rubber stamp a play off system that includes play off for the teams finishing second and third bottom, why should the two dominant clubs not also be asked to jeapordise their duopoly at the top?

A valid enough argument, one that I suspect some non-Old Firm fans might be drawn to and a fairly intriguing way for Thompson to make his point.

Certainly it appears that the proposals put forward by the SPL and backed by Henry McLeish look to have no chance of carrying the 11 to 1 majority of SPL clubs that they require.

Back to the drawing board?

Play Off Thoughts

Do I agree with a four team play off at the top of the SPL? No. Because I'm an old fashioned kind of guy and you either win the league or you don't. Simples.

But maybe Thompson is on to something.

In 12 SPL campaigns Rangers and Celtic have finished in top two places 11 times with Rangers finishing third in the 2005/2006 season.

In those 12 seasons they have won 32 of the 36 trophies on offer in Scotland.

So even with a play off system they would still be expected to dominate, with seedings at the semi final stage giving a big chance of an extra, hugely meaningful, Old Firm game at Hampden each season. I've a feeling the broadcasters might like that.

But it is hard to make the argument that the third and fourth placed teams would deserve to be involved.

In the 12 SPL seasons the closest the third placed team has finished behind the second placed team is one point. That was in 2005/2006 when Rangers were breathing down Hearts' backs.

In every other season the Old Firm have filled the top two spots. The closest any side has come to them is the seven point gap achieved by Aberdeen in 2006/2007. That same year Hearts in fourth place were only nine points behind.

In the other ten seasons no team has come closer than 13 points behind whichever Old Firm side has occupied second. In seven seasons the gap has been 15 points or more. In 2002/2003 Hearts in third place finished 35 points behind and fourth placed Kilmarnock were 40 points behind.

The SPL's history suggests that third and fourth placed teams simply don't deserve a play off for the championship.

Can the same argument be made for teams at the other end of the table?

The gap between bottom and second and third bottom tends to be much closer.

In 2001/02 bottom club St Johnstone finished 19 points behind Motherwell, three years later Livingston were 15 points adrift of Motherwell and Dunfermline and Gretna's fairytale ended some 17 points behind Kilmarnock.

In no other season has there been more than ten points between the bottom club and the second bottom club and only twice has the gap between bottom and third bottom been ten points or more.

The SPL is tighter at the bottom than it as at the top. That, rightly or wrongly, makes a relegation play off easier to justify than a championship play off.

The teams in second and third bottom are likely to have spent the season looking more like relegation candidates than the teams in third and fourth place have looked like champions.

> In 2001/02 Celtic won the SPL with 103 points. Rangers in second had 85 points. Livingston were third with 58 points, Aberdeen fourth with 55.

It is difficult not to accept Lennon and Smith's arguments that league tables like that are so conclusive that giving Livingston and Aberdeen and even second placed Rangers the chance to take the title after two extra games is a bit odd.

Odd. But probably also quite amusing if you don't happen to be a Celtic fan.

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