‘It didn’t really work, did it?’ bemoaned a Rangers supporter to me the other week. ‘Next season we’ll need to start the season in February…’ The despairing bluenose was referring to the early start to this season’s Clydesdale Bank SPL with the league kicking off on 23 July, ostensibly to support Scots clubs campaigns in Europe. However, before July was over, Dundee United had already gone out of the Europa League and Rangers were hurtling towards the exit door the UEFA Champions League having lost the first leg of their third qualifying round tie with Swedish champions Malmo at Ibrox. There may have been a strong element of sarcasm in that Ranger’s man’s assertion but, on reflection, perhaps he had a point.
A few months from now, we’ll be heading to Tynecastle in the depths of winter. If last winter is anything to gauge, you will require several layers of clothing, a couple of Hearts scarves and the thermal socks you got from Auntie Betty at Christmas for the eighth year in a row (for which you will be nonetheless grateful for come the trip to Easter Road on 2 January) I sincerely hope I’m wrong, particularly from a Hearts perspective, but by then there will be a fair chance there will be no Scots clubs left in European competition and the excitement of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League will be a distant memory. And as we huddle from the howling wind, driving rain and snow, Scottish football pundits will be asking how things can improve.
When Rangers played Malmo the consensus was that the Swedes were no better than Ally McCoist’s side but were much fitter, having already played eight games in their domestic season. Now, summer football has been debated more times in this country than stamps in David Obua’s passport but the traditionalists always seem to win the argument. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no more traditionalist than me. In fact, if it were down to me teams would still be playing each other just twice a season and Rab Prentice would still be playing on the wing (even if he is now in his fifties - God bless you, Rab!) However, one of the many changes in football in recent years has been the expansion of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League to reflect the changes in the European continent over the last quarter of a century ago.
In 1983, Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners Cup (defeating Real Madrid, no less, in the final) A year later Dundee United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup before reaching the final of the UEFA Cup in 1987. Three rounds of preliminary qualifiers beginning in mid July were unheard of for Scots. However, the break up of the Soviet Union and then the former Yugoslav and Czechoslovakian states, added to the admittance to FIFA of the likes of the Faroe Islands saw a sea change in European football. More clubs in European competition meant more preliminary rounds starting earlier and earlier and as Scottish football stock has fallen in Europe so it has become much tougher for our clubs to make an impact. True, both Celtic and Rangers have reached the former UEFA Cup final in recent years but the underlying story of Scots clubs in Europe in the last decade or so is of being out before the end of the various trades fortnight summer holidays around the country.
It’s clear that when Scots clubs are drawn against sides from those countries that play the majority of their football during the summer months, they struggle to match their opponents’ fitness levels. In my view starting the domestic season a couple of weeks earlier than usual doesn’t really help that much. A more radical approach would be for Scotland to change the season from August to May to March to December.
I would suggest starting with the Scottish Cup and play it over successive Saturdays in spring with the final remaining in its traditional May date. Then the Clydesdale Bank SPL could take over and, to keep things fresh for clubs and supporters alike, the season could end with the League Cup just before Christmas (it wasn’t that long ago that League Cup finals were held in November) As an added incentive I would have the League Cup winners play-off against the fourth placed team in the league to decide who would play in the following season’s Europa League. This would see the close season take place during January and February when the Scottish winter is usually at its most severe.
As I’ve said this would be a radical approach but surely something has to be done to reverse the trend of Scots clubs crashing out of European competition so early. At least when the preliminary rounds begin in mid July, the Scots would be prepared like never before. Add in the pleasure of watching football during the warm sunny months (okay, I’ve used poetic licence here given the weather in recent summers) and the potential of a television deal with one of the satellite companies then the idea of summer football might even be lucrative.
Yes, there might have to be a mid-season shutdown when there is a World Cup or European Championship finals to be played. However, as it’s been 13 years since Scotland last played in the finals of a major tournament then that’s an obstacle that can be jumped on approach.
Would it work? Sadly, I suspect we may never know…