In December 2015, the SPFL announced a major change in the format to the Scottish League Cup from the start of the 2016/17 season. This new innovative format would see 8 groups of 5 teams play each other once in a round-robin format, with the 38 teams not involved in UEFA competition qualifiers along with the winners of the Highland League and Lowland League. They also announced that new broadcast partner, BT Sports, would show 6 of the 80 group matches.
The SPFL also introduced a new points system, where in addition to the traditional 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw, a bonus point would be awarded to the winner of a penalty shoot out should a match be drawn in 90 minutes. This was the first time such a system was put in place anywhere in the world football. This increased points variation was to lead to more excitement around every match and increase the number of meaningful games in the group stage.
The group winners and the 4 best runners up would progress to the second round, where they would be joined by the 4 teams in UEFA qualifying as the competition would revert to a straight knock-out format.
As you would expect, this change was met with mixed reactions amongst Scottish football fans. While some applauded the new innovations, some questioned whether or not there was such a need to play so many matches in such a short space of time. Some, like myself, thought that it was an unnecessary change and would become a glorified pre-season competition. Others welcomed the change and felt that the lower league sides would benefit the most.Whatever your thoughts at the time, the group format was a selling point to BT Sports and to new competition sponsor Betfred.
But has the new format been a success? Has it given the fans the “excitement” and “meaningful” matches the SPFL and Neil Doncaster promised? And more importantly, has it changed the opinions of those who were against it?
From a financial point of view, the lower league clubs, who may at times have welcomed two higher league sides, these matches would be a huge benefit. For example, in the first season, Stranraer, Annan Athletic and East Stirlingshire were all drawn in the same group as Rangers and Motherwell. All three lower league sides would have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of the gate receipts for these two games, some of which would double their income for the year.
In some eyes, the new format is favourable to the top tier sides given the way the draw is structured. However, there are some lower league sides who have qualified from the group stage against the odds. In 2016, Peterhead were able to get into the second round with just 8 points, finishing above East Fife on goal difference. That group consisted on Premiership side Dundee, Championship side, Dumbarton, League 1 sides Peterhead and East Fife and League 2’s Forfar. On paper you would put the Premiership side the favourites but in one off cup matches, you can never count out the underdogs. Dundee actually finished 3rd on 7 points with 2 wins, 1 draw and 1 lose. The lose on penalties to East Fife, was hugely significant as the Dundee side, missed out on qualification by 1 point. Even though they thrashed Forfar 7-0 in the last game, Peterhead’s penalty shoot out win at Championship Dumbarton was enough to see them through. Had Dumbarton won the shootout, East Fife would have went through. That was why the bonus point win was introduced, to give every match and scenario a significance.
In 2017, Hearts under boss Ian Cathro, were handed a good draw as they were pitted against Championship side Dunfermline, League 1 side East Fife and League 2’s Peterhead and Elgin City. However, failure to beat Dunfermline and a lose at Balmoor ended The Jambo’s cup hopes at the first stage as they finished third in the group. Something that would ultimately cost Cathro his job.
As for the introduction of the Highland League and Lowland League winners into the competition, I see this as a great step for those teams and for the pyramid system. Theseteams have performed reasonably well against their League opposition and if anything, these matches will have provided them with an experience they would not necessarily get. The bonus for winning their respective leagues, is an opportunity in the League Cup and 4 matches against League opposition. For them, it’s their equivalent to qualifying for the Champions League.
Over the past 5 seasons, East Kilbride have performed the best of these sides, twice they ended the group stage with 5 points. In 2017, they got a shoot out win at Championship Queen of the South and beat Stenhousemuir 2-1 at Ochilview. They then did it again in 2019, beating Premier League side St Mirren on penalties and following that up with a win against Edinburgh City. Amazingly. those results gave the Lowland League side an outside chance of qualifying for the second round going into the final group match. Ultimately though, they fell at the final hurdle.
Overall, in my opinion, there have been many more meaningful and exciting matches played out in the last 5 seasons since the new format came into play. The new format has done exactly what the SPFL had hoped for. Neil Doncaster has been criticised for many things in his time at the helm of the SPFL, but he and the SPFL board have got this one right.
I’m not one for messing around with changes to competitionformats and rules, I like the traditions, but I am happy to say that this one has been a good change I hope it is one that continues for many years to come.