Opinion: Out-of-touch Scottish football blazers must do better after baffling decisions

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First the Scottish Cup kick-off time debacle, next the Conference League climbdown, and then the unexplained League Cup invitation absurdity.

It’s not been a good week for Scottish football’s administrators, who have stumbled from one controversial decision to the next without being able to explain themselves.

Very few will care about the latest inexcusable folly because it involves a club further down Scottish football’s pyramid who do not have a big fanbase. But following on from the Conference League embarrassment, it serves to underline concerns about a lack of awareness and understanding of semi-professional football by those who get paid to run the game.

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Lack of explanation

SFA and SPFL chiefs Ian Maxwell and Neil DoncasterSFA and SPFL chiefs Ian Maxwell and Neil Doncaster
SFA and SPFL chiefs Ian Maxwell and Neil Doncaster

The SPFL gave no explanation for its decision to invite Cowdenbeath to take up the vacant space in the Viaplay League Cup group stage draw. Sporting merit was certainly not a consideration given that the Fife club finished 15th out of 19 teams in the Lowland League.

Under the group stage format over the last couple of years, the vacant place has rotated between the Highland and Lowland League teams who finished second. First it was East Kilbride, then Buckie Thistle. That in itself was far from perfect – a one-off play-off between the two runners-up could have been arranged rather than rotating between two leagues – but there was at least a shred of logic behind it based on sporting merit.

Had that pattern continued, University of Stirling would have been next in line to be invited after finishing as the second non B team behind Spartans in the Lowland League.

The students, it should be said, had a fantastic season, taking on Dundee United at Tannadice in the Scottish Cup and winning four trophies. Manager Chris Geddes has taken charge of an incredible 107 competitive games over the course of the season, given his club’s commitments in university football and in the East of Scotland League, where they run a reserve team. (Yes, Celtic, Rangers and Hearts are not the only clubs with second teams in the pyramid).

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University of Stirling head coach Chris GeddesUniversity of Stirling head coach Chris Geddes
University of Stirling head coach Chris Geddes

Missing out on money

Geddes and his club received no advance explanation or warning from the SPFL board about its decision to change the way things were done previously and reward Cowdenbeath rather than the students the chance to pit their wits against four SPFL opponents in a national competition this July. Even if they finish bottom of their group, Cowdenbeath will pick up a minimum of £22,000 prize money. University of Stirling will get nothing.

It might be small change for Premiership clubs, but that is decent sum for a Lowland League club. University of Stirling will feel aggrieved. The Fifers have been ‘invited’ to take up a League Cup group stage place and the associated prize money seemingly because they were relegated from the SPFL in the summer of 2022. Work that one out if you can.

It is the equivalent of UEFA arbitrarily handing a European place to Dundee United instead of Hibs next season … just because Dundee United used to be quite good. Imagine the outcry if that happened.

Of course, this decision will probably be forgotten about quickly by everyone who isn’t connected to Stirling Uni. But it is the latest example of the disdainful attitude shown by Scottish football’s Hampden-based administrators towards clubs outside the SPFL. Recent decisions would appear to suggest that they don’t understand, don’t care or possibly both.

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Missing the point

Scottish FA and SPFL chiefs have been cheerleaders for the Conference League concept and got their PR so disastrously wrong in the run up to a vote at the SFA AGM this week that the motion had to be pulled with less than 24 hours’ notice. They didn’t think it through.

It was SPFL and SFA officials who told Lowland League clubs that the new league would be coming in regardless. That the status quo was not an option. They effectively told them to accept B teams in the Lowland League next season or have the Conference League brought in above them instead – whether they liked it or not. They told them it could be done without the requirement of a vote by setting up a new company and simply passing a resolution among all SFA members clubs and local associations at the AGM.

They were proved wrong. They have, in fact, made things worse rather than better for the B teams concept, club after club having declared and explained clearly and publicly in advance why they would be voting against.

Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell made a desperate appeal for support a few days before by extolling the benefits B teams could bring to the Scottish national team in the years ahead. A better demonstration of totally missing the point is difficult to find.

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Like them or loathe them, B teams have already been in the Lowland League for two years and had already been accepted for next season, so why Maxwell decided to go down that line of argument – it works well for the Croatian national team, he said – was quite bizarre.

The objection most semi-pro clubs had to this proposal was not about B teams per se. Sure, some object to B teams on principle. But others think it could work if done constructively and fairly. There is a general and genuine willingness to work collectively on the best way of producing better young Scottish players at the elite level.

The objections to the Conference League were about quickly shoehorning in another national league at tier five that was devoid of sporting integrity. The objections were about a nationwide league of only six competitive semi-pro teams and another four who could not be promoted or relegated. The objections were about a league of four B teams, one of which had yet to be found. Another, Hearts, finished 13th in the Lowland League. The objections to this proposal were mainly about the imposition, structure and set up of the league itself. Even the extra B team money failed to sell the idea.

Lack of consultation

The lack of consultation about what became the Conference League proposal was perhaps not surprising given the content of the unconvincing pyramid working group document which presented three possible options for getting Premiership B teams higher up the pyramid. None of them included the status quo or addressed existing concerns within the lower tiers of the pyramid itself. It was about moving B teams up the ladder and little else.

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The rationale for moving B teams up, purportedly to help produce better young players for the national team, lacked credible evidence. It was a bit like the SFA explanation for moving the Scottish Cup final kick-off time to 5.30pm. Thoroughly unconvincing.

The Scottish FA was promoting its Week of Football as a nation-wide celebration of the game last week. What is really needs to promote is better decision-making, better consultation, better explanation and much better PR.

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