False promises, Sacrifice and the Greater good: How Lower League Scotland is Surviving.

By Cameron Deacon – @Cam_Deacon21 interviews Airdrie Director Of Football Stuart Millar.

Last week I wrote a piece about how the SPFL needed to take reconstruction seriously, I did a lot of research into the topic and offered up the potential solutions. I thought it was a good piece. Unfortunately, what I didn’t realise was that I like so many others was falling into the trap of forgetting that Scotland is not made up of two football teams. I spoke about the impact that Celtic and Rangers are having on any chances of reconstruction, but I forgot the whole purpose to why I was writing the piece. The whole topic of reconstruction became apparent to me when I heard about how lower league Scottish football clubs had no choice but to vote to end the season, despite league positioning, because without the money they would get for finishing the season a number of clubs could and would die.

Luckily for me the error of my ways was pointed out to me by none other than the Director of Football at Airdrieonians F.C and Ex-player Stuart Millar. But with his criticism came an opportunity, Stuart has been working at one of the clubs who have been most effected by the season ending. In 3rd place with only five points between them and 1st, Airdrie still had to play both 1st placed Raith Rovers and 2nd place Falkirk and as one of the best performing away sides in League 1 they were confident that they could’ve moved further up the table. With this in mind I got in touch with Stuart if he was happy to give some insight into what life had been like in the last few month for lower league clubs and he was more than happy to help. So after I had originally given him the wrong phone number I eventually got to speak to Stuart about his view on what has happened over the past few month and what I realised very quickly was that the spirit of most teams below the SPFL was that they must act for the greater good of the sport.

“The whole nation had been effected by COVID-19 virus and in football terms we think we are above health and medical advice; football has its own identity. But sometimes you have to think beyond that and think for the greater good. In Scotland, a huge amount of the clubs are semi-professional and the fact was that we could not afford the testing that would eventually come in to allow clubs to play was a big factor. But from Airdrie’s point of view we were very reluctant to end the league, we have one of the best sports scientists in the country with John McMenemy and we were ready to go the full season, with promising fixtures ahead”

Stuart mentioned how Airdrie really believed that they had goals set out that they could achieve and with all the preparation that they had done, promotion was a real possibility, so when the play-offs were taken away the club knew that they were dammed to League 1, so then why did the club vote to end the season?

“We couldn’t make it null and void Cameron, it’s a shame for the supporters, it’s a shame for those who witnessed a last minute goal at Falkirk to win the game, it’s a shame for a striker who has scored 15 goals (Dale Carrick) because that would have all been wiped away. Then there were the financial difficulties so that was never going to be an option.

So, we were asked to end the League as it was, and we reluctantly agreed. You know people talk about only thinking for yourself and self-interests, we weren’t like that. We thought about the greater good of Scottish football”

Thinking about the greater good seems to be a theme with Airdrie who on so many levels seem to be thinking about those other than themselves. Of course they are not alone but as I got to discover later, they haven’t been selling season tickets because they don’t want to sell false promises to their fans when they don’t know when or how football is going to re-start. 

Yet it is false promises which Airdrie, and the rest of the country, were sold upon.

“We were told that league reconstruction would be looked upon very favourably, because it has been the same set up here for a long long time and everyone is board with the four games a season. Let’s get back to playing twice as season home and away.

So, we get told that league reconstruction would be looked upon very favourably, so we decided to vote to end the league, so we sacrificed for Raith (Rovers) would win the league. So, we then entered into league reconstruction talks and there was a number of meetings but to be honest it never really got off the ground.” 

So it would seem that one of the key factors as to why some clubs voted the way they did was because they thought that it would result in league reconstruction and therefore they might all end up benefiting them at the end of the day. So why when lower league clubs with so much to gain are voting for the greater good of Scotland, why is it that the talks never really started?

“The Premier League teams had decided no. They were going to be struggling financially so don’t want to increase the size of the league, that’s why the suggestion of a 16 team league will not happen, because then the money is divided between 16 and each of the top teams ends up getting less. So at the moment they came to conclusion that they couldn’t afford to give more clubs a share of the pie”

In these difficult times you could almost forgive sides for not wanting to lose more money and yet it feels as though many teams have been betrayed, this point in the conversation lead us back to what I said at the start. Thinking about the rest of Scotland outside the Premiership, they are not the only league in Scotland and yet all reconstruction talks seem centred around it. So, with them so unwilling to change, a proposal which Airdrie put forward, seemed like the perfect solution.

“We wanted 20 teams in the Championship, no-one was going to get disadvantaged by it. Even Stranraer, who were getting relegated, they had only won two games of 27 all season and I know they’re my former club and I spent five years there. But you don’t know if they are going to win or lose their final eight games. But the season was not completed, and they shouldn’t have been disadvantaged, as Hearts shouldn’t have been disadvantaged, as Partick Thistle shouldn’t.” 

Airdrie’s proposal was simple, a 20 team second tier, making the SFL a three-tier league. Hearts don’t get relegated with Dundee United and Inverness both promoted to the Premiership. Top two sides from League 2 get promoted to the new 20 teams second tier and Kelty Hearts and Brora Rangers brought in from the Lowland and Highland Leagues respectively. Seems simple enough, a revamp in the Heart of Scottish football and no team is punished. But in reality, is it actually possible? I put this question to Stuart and he really does think it’s possible, however he is worried about League 2 because as he beautifully put it…

“Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas! 

Let’s be honest the League 2 sides are scared of the Highland League and Lowland League teams coming in. Kelty, Brora Rangers, East Kilbride, Bonnyrigg RCFC all have great resources and great support, if you look at the top two clubs in League 2 it was the two newest clubs in the league. Cove Rangers and Edinburgh City. So, they have come in and had an impact, so who is to say that others won’t come in and do the same and nobody wants a situation where they could fall out the league. In my view the simple way to resolve that is you have a League 1, League 2 and a League 3, it’s simple! Why not have a Scottish League 3 where you no-longer need to drop out of the league altogether and instead incorporate those teams into a League format?”

It does make sense and this is coming from a man with over 40 years’ experience in Scottish football and was a player when one of the biggest reconstructions of all time took place back in 1975 when the Premiership dropped from 18 teams to 10! And as Stuart went on to point out, since then there has been several changes but as for the rest of Scotland’s leagues it has been as you were. So maybe it is time to change focus.

I then went on to talk about what it was actually like in the last few months, how the club was coping, what they have had to do and how it is going to affect them in the future.

Well the stadium had to close down, the players have had to go away and train on their own and do what they need to do. It’s been a ghost town, but the furlough has been a godsend to be honest. And I think every club would agree with that. We as a club didn’t come out and say we have furlough this person because we felt that it is a private matter between the club and the employee and I understand that fans want to know what is going on but their is a lot which should be kept behind closed doors. So Airdrie kept most things behind closed doors.

But naturally it has been a very difficult time, especially in a recruitment point of view, because all you are able to do is express an interest in a particular player but you can’t say you want to sign them because they immediately look for wages. But we are not in a position to do that with no income coming into the club.

But I amazed at how well clubs (In league 1 and 2) are coping with it right now to be honest. I am hoping in longer term that everything gets resolved, but I just hope it is a wakeup call for all clubs. The I was an assistant manager at Stranraer we were playing against Gretna and we all know what happened to them. We need to be sensible and cautious and most clubs are, but you are still seeing some players and some agents acting as if nothing has happened? They need to get into the real world

I’ve been telling the young players who have been let go by the club. If they get offered a senior contract, then they just need to take it! It’s not about money now it’s about getting a contact”

In relation to not selling season tickets like many clubs are across the UK, the answer which Stuart gave was very straight forward.

“We have a terrific board of directors at Airdrie but most importantly we are realistic. If things speed up and get better faster than thought, then great but we don’t know what is going to happen in the world. We believe, and time will tell if we are doing the right thing but, that you must think beyond the actually football and the sport and think about what is happening in the world.”  

Finally, I asked Stuart what he thought the future was for Scottish football.

“Firstly, I think Scottish football is very durable, we will always survive. We always stick by each other and that’s just the Scottish mentality. That said League reconstruction does need to happen. With regards to the lower leagues we need to introduce the pyramid system. England have got it with the national leagues and so on, but we must develop some sort of pathway. I think we need something where the winners of the Highland and Lowland Leagues are automatically promoted, you know you shouldn’t need to have a playoff against the bottom team. If you have won a league within the pyramid system, then you should automatically be promoted. But for a start we need to extend League 2, but the whole system needs a shake up and our proposal for the 20-team championship would be ideal. We need that bit of freshness, let’s have two games a season. But I’m sure all clubs will survive. Local communities will work together with these clubs to make sure of that, because as long as we have a team to support that is the most important thing.”

I couldn’t have ended it better myself. As much as Scottish football does need a revamp what you can be sure of is that the football will go on. Local football teams mean so much to so many local communities that as long as a ball is being kicked, whether that be in a 10, 12, 16 or 20 team leagues, they will not care. And as long as clubs work together, accept that not everyone can be appeased and work for the greater good of all Scottish Football then there is no reason why it can’t emerge from this pandemic even stronger than it was before.

I also have to say a massive thank you to Stuart for speaking to me and offering his opinions and knowledge. It was a great learning experience to me which also reminded me of the importance and reason why I love Scottish football. It is the passion and the drive of those who love football within their small communities that makes Scottish Football tick and not just the scale and the money at the top.

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