The new, old League Cup

Reports today are all over the media about the latest SPFL innovation of reintroducing mini qualifying leagues to the League Cup. This will begin in mid-July (one of the reasons they have been able to contract with BT Sport who will be looking for content at that time of year, before the football season fully gets going) and use, it is reported eight groups of five team, loosely geographically based.

This is the first thing that puzzles me, since there are 42 teams in the SPFL at the moment. We are told that the four teams playing in Europe will get a bye at this stage so that must leave only 38. So how can there be eight groups of five? Do they plan to bring in a team from the Highland League and one from the Lowland League, even though they are not members of the SPFL? No doubt more detail will come out in due course.

However, the five team format means two things. First of all that every match day one team per group will be idle. Secondly that as there are only five math days, teams will not play each other home and away, but have two home games and two away games.

The idea of mini-qualifying leagues, though it not a new one. While others have made the same suggestion, this was included in the Fans Plan which along with two colleagues – Greig Ingram and Neil Bone – when we were all members of the Scottish Council of Supporters Direct, before Greig and I moved on to Fans First Scotland.

What we said in the Fans Plan at the time was

“League Cup

A frequently voiced objection to leagues of 16, is that it will mean fewer games – six fewer compared to SFL 1 – 3, and eight fewer compared to the current configuration of the SPL. However, it is our view that this can be addressed by a reworked League Cup, using the “mini-league” qualifying structure abandoned more than thirty years ago.

  1. The League Cup should revert to its previous format of pre-qualifying through eight groups of four clubs each, playing home and away to qualify for the quarter finals

The clubs participating in this competition will be those in the Scottish National Football Premier League, and Scottish National Football League 1 – i.e. thirty two teams organized into eight qualification groups (seeded depending on the previous season’s finishing position) of four teams who will play each other home and away, creating a competition with an initial six games. Being the season opener this will also

  1. Offer clubs the opportunity of playing trialists in a competitive situation in games played before the transfer window closes
  2. Trying out new positional and/or tactical ideas in less demanding matches.
  3. Also the possibility of giving young players the opportunity of an introduction to competitive play.
  4. Being seeded as recommended it will create high profile matches, during the excellent weather of the late Scottish summer, with significant novelty value for clubs who seldom enjoy this kind of profile.

We also recommend that the eight groups are set up geographically so as to offer the maximum number of local derbies – for instance a Glasgow group containing the Old Firm; an Edinburgh based group which would include Hearts and Hibs; an Ayrshire group with Kilmarnock and Ayr; a Fife group including Cowdenbeath, East Fife, Dunfermine and Raith Rovers.

The eight teams emerging from the mini-leagues will play, home and away matches at quarter and semi-final, followed by a final – therefore a maximum of five additional games

This creates a playing season for teams in the Premier and League 1 made up as follows

  1. League Matches – 30
  2. League Cup – 6 minimum, (11 maximum)
  3. Scottish Cup – 1 minimum
  4. Giving a minimum total of 37 matches”

Our proposal was part of a larger range of ideas for changing the game in Scotland, focusing particularly in increasing the level of competition between teams as a means of attracting back fans. In particular, we took the view that 12 or 10 team leagues required teams to play each other too often, thus reducing interest. Our preference was for 16 team leagues, teams playing each other twice. As above, this means reducing the number of guaranteed games to 30, but the introduction of the above format would make good that loss, and in a constructive way since the groups being based on geographic proximity and thus local rivalries, could attract even more fans.

It will though be apparent to the particularly numerate reader that the above includes only 32 teams – ie the teams in the top two leagues. Our proposal for the remaining 10 – who would play in the level 3 “Qualifying League” – is for them to play in a new competition we called “The Scottish Communities Cup” with the teams in the Highland and Lowland Leagues.

A slight adjustment to numbers would allow the SPFL proposal of giving a bye to the four teams playing in Europe to be included in this (eg the top four in the previous season’s level 3 league to participate in the League Cup). It would though have the advantage of teams playing each other home and away, but in particular is part of an overall restructuring of the game to leagues based on 16 teams, rather than just a minor tweak to a single competition and hoping that this will reinvigorate the game as a whole.

The Fans Plan was not a pick and mix proposal, but instead a systematic restructuring of the game in Scotland based on the following observations/ principles

  1. Fan opinion that revenue should be more evenly distributed; that clubs should play each other twice per seasons and not three or four times; fans’ sense of exclusion from the developmental process in the game
  2. That competition within Scottish football lagged behind that of the leagues in Portugal, Belgium and to some extent the Netherlands. We also showed that match day attendance in these leagues was increasing, while in Scotland it was in decline;
  3. That competition within the game needs to be increased to make the game more attractive by increasing the uncertainty of outcome, both of individual matches, and of the league outcome in a season as a whole. By addressing this, we suggested that fan interest, and attendance, would increase, thus increasing the resources available to the game.

In short what is proposed today for the League Cup has several advantages, but its particular disadvantage is that it is part of a piecemeal approach to developing professional football in Scotland, when what is required is an approach which begins from an identification of its fundamental problem – lack of internal competition – and makes an appropriate range of responses to this.

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