Hearts, Rangers and possibly Hibs and Dunfermline – the Championship looks like the place to be next season, not a one-horse race for the title as the Scottish Premiership will once again be with Celtic’s name already all but engraved on the trophy.
A top flight without either of the Edinburgh clubs seems unthinkable, but it’s now a distinct possibility with Hearts paying the price of the penalties imposed having plunged into administration and Hibs in a tailspin – Terry Butcher’s players have managed just one win in their last 19 matches.
The Easter Road outfit, of course, can still save themselves with a two-legged play-off against either Hamilton or Falkirk offering them one last chance to avoid the drop.
Having their arch-rivals join them in the lower tier would, for many Hearts fans, be the perfect retort to those Hibs supporters who taunted them for months about the threat of liquidation as the Gorgie club fought for its very survival.
The chance also of preserving the Edinburgh derby allied to further big matches against Rangers is an enticing thought for Jambos as their club continues to claw its way back from the depths into which its own financial meltdown dragged it.
It would certainly help turn the spotlight from the Premiership to the Championship but, scratch beneath the surface, look further ahead than next season and, according to Neil Patey, football financial expert with global finance firm EY, the ramifications on Hibs could linger far longer.
Derbies and two visits each from Rangers would undoubtedly help compensate in the short term, but it is questionable whether other Championship sides would bring the size of travelling support associated with, say, the likes of Celtic, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Motherwell. And there’s the obvious fact that only one club would be guaranteed promotion this time next year.
Patey said: “I would suspect the bookies are saying Rangers are the likely candidates for that one automatic promotion place as are most neutral observers, which leaves the play-off spot with no guarantees.
“Any club that’s relegated has a squad that’s more aligned to the division they have just left, so in theory they should have a better squad, but there’s a tough financial decision to be made: to make sure you get promoted, can you afford a loss for a season to get bigger money the next season?
“That’s a risk, if you get stuck you cannot do that for two or three years, losses start to amount and we all know what happens if that hole starts to grow.”
The merit payments between the divisions brought about by league reconstruction would help but, as Patey perhaps rather obviously pointed out, the quicker a club wins promotion the better, citing the impact playing Championship rather than Premiership football can have not only on gates but television income, merchandising, corporate hospitality, sponsorship and so on.
While Hearts, knowing the restrictions under which they would be operating, have been gearing themselves towards relegation for almost a year, that possibility was unlikely to have even crossed the mind of Hibs chairman Rod Petrie and his fellow directors as they watched Butcher’s side clock up three successive victories over the festive period, wins against Ross County, Kilmarnock and the Jambos appearing to signal an upturn in the club’s fortunes with all thoughts then on a top-six finish and even a tilt at Europe.
Patey said: “Hearts have realistically been planning to be in the Championship, the administrators have been running a pretty tight ship, they’ve pretty much cut costs to the bone and put it in good shape to be ready for the Championship.
“At Christmas, no-one really thought Hibs were going to be relegation candidates. However, I’m sure that over the last couple of months Rod Petrie has been running through ‘what if’ scenarios.
“He’s been around for a long time, he’s always maintained a fairly stable financial position and done well over the years to maintain that and I’m sure transfer budgets and planning for next season has been put on hold until they know which league they will be playing in and how much they can afford to spend on players.”
Butcher has made no secret of his desire to conduct a radical overhaul of the squad he inherited from his predecessor Pat Fenlon with numerous players out of contract in the next few weeks but, Patey believes, the uncertainty caused by the recent downward spiral will also have disrupted his plans.
He said: “Even if you have money to spend, attracting players to your club is obviously more difficult if you are playing in a lower division.”
According to Patey, however, the implications of having neither Hibs or Hearts in the Premiership are wider for Edinburgh as a whole, a Capital city without top-flight football.
He said: “If you were a Hearts fan you might say you want your old rivals down, the emotional pull of the derbies.
“You might say if Hibs come down it makes it harder for Hearts to come back up although their record against Hibs is good and they might fancy their chances. You’d have to ask Hearts fans what they think but from the city’s point of view – Edinburgh wants Premiership clubs, not Championship clubs.
“Not to have a club in the Premiership is not a good thing for Edinburgh.
“It might be good for the derbies and having Rangers come to down – bars, taxis and the like would benefit – but the fact is there will be less interest in the other games, there won’t be the same travelling support.”