Scottish Football: The Season So Far
It's that time of year when most of the domestic football leagues around Europe are finishing - winners and losers are being decided everywhere and the efforts of many over the long season can now be properly judged by media and fans. In Scotland the four leagues which make up the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) are at this stage. This then makes it the perfect time to reflect on what we have witnessed while looking ahead to what is still to come - namely the end of season playoffs.
For anyone perhaps reading about Scottish football for the first time, welcome. Here's a quick overview of how the league structure operates here. There are four divisions - Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two. The Premiership is made up of twelve clubs while the other three leagues contain ten teams each. A promotion and relegation system operate within the leagues. Finishing bottom of your respective league means automatic relegation to the league below. A second last finish puts those clubs in a playoff tournament with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th finishing teams from the league below. Winning your league equals automatic promotion. The bottom placed team in League Two faces a playoff with the winner of the Highland/Lowland league playoff. This is what I call the trapdoor game as a loss for the established league team means dropping out of the professional pyramid.
That's the boring bit out of the way, time to look at what happened this season in some more detail.
The Premiership still has two game rounds to go but most of the placings have already been decided. Celtic are the champions, their eighth title in a row. Celtic's great rivals from across the city of Glasgow, Rangers, have secured second place although I'm sure their supporters would have been hopeful of running Celtic closer in the title race. Maybe next season. Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hibs are all vying for the third-place spot. As league winners, Celtic will enter the qualifying stages for next season's European Cup (sorry I don't like the phrase Champions League). Rangers will enter the qualifying rounds for Europe's secondary tournament, the Europa League. Third place is important as that also secures a berth in the Europa League qualifiers. To my less than expert eye Kilmarnock look best placed to take this. Aberdeen currently have a long injury list while Hibs need to win all their remaining games and have other results go their way.
At the bottom of the Premiership Dundee have been relegated. They have only managed a pathetic 18 points from the 36 games they have played so far. A truly sorry effort, Championship football awaits them next season. It looks like St. Mirren will finish second bottom. That will give them one last chance to save themselves - they will wait and play whichever club emerges from the Championship playoffs; Dundee United, Ayr United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle the clubs involved there.
From a neutral perspective it would have been nice to see someone emerge from the pack to offer Celtic a genuine challenge for the title. As it played out no-one was up to the task although the job Steve Clarke has done at Kilmarnock since he started managing them has been impressive. He is bound to be in demand, but it would be better for the league overall if he remained at Kilmarnock to continue building on the good work he has already done there.
The Championship is always one of the most fiercely contested leagues in the whole of the UK. This season was no exception. Ross County eventually separated themselves from the group of contenders and ended up winning the title by six points. They will return to the Premiership next season. As already mentioned, Dundee United (2nd), Inverness Caledonian Thistle (3rd) and Ayr United (4th) will now contest playoffs for the right to face St. Mirren in a promotion/relegation finale. A potential final tie between Dundee United and St. Mirren would be hard to predict - perhaps Dundee United would just shade it to move back into the top division after an absence of three seasons.
The battle to remain in the Championship went right to the final day. All season long Falkirk, Partick Thistle and Alloa had been in danger of going down with Queen of the South getting dragged into the relegation fight towards the end of the campaign. It ended up with Falkirk finishing bottom (only on goal difference) and Queen of the South finishing ninth. Partick Thistle and Alloa (widely expected to go down before a ball was kicked) survived due to picking up some good results when it really mattered. So, Falkirk are relegated and will play in the third tier of Scottish football for the first time since 1980. Queen of the South will enter the playoff tournament with the League One promotion contenders.
The demise of Falkirk is a big story in its own right. Having grown up not far from that town I have plenty of friends who support Falkirk and they have been alarmed at what has unfolded at their club. While no team has a divine right to a position in one of the top two leagues, Falkirk, fairly recently a Premiership club, should not have dropped into League One. The league table doesn't lie though, and their final position is a reflection of some terrible decisions that have been made over the last two years by the people currently running that club. Next season in League One will be a sobering experience for their fans, they can only hope that things improve, and they can make a swift return to the Championship.
Speaking of League One - this is where, in general, the cut-off point between full-time and part-time teams happens. Smaller stadiums and fan bases mean the clubs who traditionally operate in Leagues One and Two do so on a semi-pro basis. As a result of this there can be a noticeable difference in the standard of play in these leagues compared to the two divisions above. What can't be called into question is the desire and commitment of the players in these leagues. Maybe it is because my club, Stenhousemuir, play at this level but I prefer watching the type of football served up in the lower divisions. Perhaps it has to do with there being less play-acting and cheating going on, the teams just get on with things in a good spirit and try to play to the best of their abilities. It must be said though that the standard of officiating in the bottom two leagues in Scotland is pretty lousy - sometimes the games can turn into a bit of a lottery because of incompetent referees.
League One this season was won by Arbroath. Against the pre-season predictions (Raith Rovers were expected to walk the league) Arbroath got off to a blistering start and kept the wins coming right up until they had the league title in the bag. They ended up seven points ahead of Forfar. Raith Rovers and Montrose will join Forfar and Queen of the South in the playoffs to compete in the Championship next season. From what I've seen Forfar look well equipped to make a run at this. They have a very capable centre forward and the three players who support him are quick and tricky - a match for anyone at this level on their day.
The bottom of League One turned into a straight battle between Brechin City and Stenhousemuir to avoid last place. As fate would have it the final day fixture for both clubs was against one another. Stenhousemuir had a one-point advantage so a draw would be good enough to finish ninth. And that is how it played out - a 1-1 draw meaning Brechin drop into League Two. Stenhousemuir live to fight another day but will need to negotiate a difficult looking playoff campaign in order to maintain their League One status for next season.
The champions of League Two are Peterhead. Automatic promotion for one of the most northerly based clubs in the Scottish Professional setup. Hot on Peterhead's heels were Clyde, widely acknowledged as the best team in League Two, who were hampered by the deduction of four points for fielding an ineligible player in two games in February. If they are as good as advertised, they should be confident of being promoted via the playoffs. Edinburgh City and Annan Athletic were the third and fourth placed finishers in League Two and join Clyde and Stenhousemuir in the fight to play in League One in 2019/20.
For a long time in Scottish football there was no penalty for finishing bottom of League Two. The professional pyramid was a closed shop and ambitious clubs from the Highland and Lowland leagues had no avenue to gain entry to this setup. That all changed prior to the 2014/15 season when the powers that be announced that the last placed team would need to face off against the winner of the Highland/Lowland league playoff. The trapdoor game was created. Since this system came into place only one team from out with the traditional clubs has managed to prevail - Edinburgh City defeating East Stirlingshire at the end of the 2015/16 campaign.
This season we may see another new arrival though. The Highland/Lowland playoff concluded yesterday with Cove Rangers of the Highland League victorious. Berwick Rangers, League Two's bottom team, now face a two-legged tie against Cove Rangers to maintain their professional status. Berwick have had a dire season and Cove Rangers are coming into this highly motivated to join the professional pyramid. Expect the highlanders to be playing League Two football next season. The trapdoor will open for Berwick Rangers.
That concludes the review and look ahead to the playoffs, thanks for reading this far. While football in Scotland is never going to hit the standards of richer leagues in larger countries like England, Spain and Italy, the successes and failures of the clubs in all four divisions always holds my interest. The sport here also has retained a bit of football's historical working class feel that looks to me to have been lost in some of the bigger leagues (looking at you EPL). The fans who attend games here are loyal, realistic and passionate about their teams. You're not likely to encounter anyone selling half-and-half scarves as you make your way to any Scottish football ground. Of course, there are problems but the people who run the game in Scotland should do a better job of highlighting the positives of Scottish football.
There have been a number of negatives this season though - mainly connected to the Premiership clubs. Fan behaviour has been in the news all season with a record number of incidents involving objects being thrown at players and fans attempting to enter the field of play to confront players occurring. Bigotry and sectarian singing also seem to be getting more prominent with certain managers coming in for specific abuse this season. Vandalism within stadiums also seems to be on the rise - I'm not sure what the mindset is with people who think they can behave however they like just because they are inside a football stadium. None of this reflects well on the country as a whole and the authorities need to get on top of all of these issues.
Scottish Football is definitely an acquired taste, but it is never found wanting in terms of providing drama and talking points. We still have the playoffs (beginning Tuesday May 7) to enjoy and of course the Scottish Cup Final (Celtic v Hearts) at Hampden Park on May 25, but the end of the season is well in sight now. A short summer break will allow the clubs to re-tool with the players who they hope will bring them success in the 2019/20 season, which begins in early August. Nothing is guaranteed in terms of success and failure of course but in the SPFL we can be sure that the next instalment of drama and controversy is just around the corner.