Paranormal Activity: SPL-style

Matt Nelson reports on the re-emergence of a curious phenomenon in Scotland's top division.

You’ve probably heard of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s a patch of water in the North Atlantic Ocean where scores of ships and planes have mysteriously vanished. Some put it down to the area’s unpredictable weather. Others say that it’s magnetic variations meddling with navigation equipment. While some, the genuine believers, say that it’s a supernatural phenomenon.

But what’s this got to do with football? Well, Scottish football has its own Bermuda Triangle, a sequence of mysterious events that are hard to explain.

Third place in the SPL is a prestige position. Most seasons splitting Rangers and Celtic is about as easy as splitting the atom with a home chemistry kit (only Hearts have broken the Old Firm’s duopoly in the past fifteen years). So, north or the border, third takes on an added significance. It’s the best of the rest, the club closest to the Old Firm’s coattails, the team that would be king if those daydreams became reality and the big two set sail for the Premiership.

But look at the final standings in Scotland’s top flight over the past fifteen years and a seemingly preternatural pattern emerges. Most of the sides that mount the greatest challenge to the Old Firm flounder the following season, tumbling from the giddy heights of guaranteed European football towards the relegation trapdoor.

From 1996 there was an eight year spell when Scotland’s third placed teams all sagged the next season, failing to consolidate their position. Aberdeen, St.Johnstone, Hearts, Dundee United, Livingstone, Hibernian – for each of these clubs success disappeared as quickly as the Mary Celeste’s crew.

In 2002 newly promoted Livingstone stormed the league in their debut season, finishing third. Speaking that year, the club’s Australian midfielder Stuart Lovell outlined his intentions to end the third place hoodoo. “Hopefully, we can learn lessons from the other teams who finished third and then had a bad next season. I'd be very surprised and very disappointed if we were drawn into a relegation battle. There's no reason I can see that we should struggle,” he said.

But the following year Livingstone did struggle, plummeting from their perch as Scotland’s third force all the way down to ninth. It fell to their successor, Hearts, to become the first club to break the pattern when in 2003 and 2004 they finished third in back-to-back seasons.

So, no need to call out Mulder and Scully – Hearts, with their follow-up success, showed that there was no Bermuda Triangle in Scottish football. Case Closed. There’s nothing paranormal about the Scottish game (pie fillings and Neil Lennon’s recently sprouted tangerine beard excepted).

But over the past few years it’s looked like the curse may be back. Motherwell – third in 2008 - limped into seventh after their high-flying season, while Hearts – third in 2009 - only just scraped into the top six.

Dundee United are emblematic of the pitfalls that success in Scottish football can bring – they look likely to become victims of the curse of third, past and present. The Tannadice side were a revelation last season, finishing third in the league and winning the Scottish Cup – the club’s first silverware since 1994. But this season they have struggled to repeat that form. As the league stands United lie bunched in the mid-table pack and look likely to relinquish their standing as the top club outside of the Old Firm.

The last time a United side finished third was in 1997. At the start of the season the club found itself languishing at the bottom of the table after only taking one point from the first four games. Seeking a solution, chairman Jim McLean dispensed with manager Billy Kirkwood and brought in his brother Tommy. An appointment that initially ran the risk of being viewed as nepotism turned out to be a resounding success. After making some shrew additions to the playing staff, McLean’s side set about slashing and burning their way through the league. A rampaging thirteen-match unbeaten run saw the team claim third place, marking a return to European football.

With the club managing to retain their key players, United looked well placed to repeat their success. But the following season they wilted horribly. The club found themselves drifting helplessly towards the relegation zone, only a brief rejuvenation in the earlier part of the season harvesting enough points to preserve Premier League status. But what could explain such a turnaround?

Norwegian defender Erik Pedersen was at the fulcrum of the United side that ransacked the league during that undefeated run in 1997. He was also part of the team that was so disappointing the following season. According to Pedersen it wasn’t a physical issue that caused the capitulation, it was all in the players’ heads. “I sometimes think it was because the players were so happy and they thought ‘this season we don’t have to work so hard and things will go well.’ The problem is they didn’t put in the same effort as they did before,” he said.

Pedersen believes that the problem for sides who finish third isn’t the burden of increased expectations or the toll of European football, but complacency. “They relax and end up struggling. The players don’t go on holiday, but they’re not far away from it,” he said.

Most paranormal occurrences are either explained or exposed as hoaxes by the scrutiny of science. And the same could be true of Scottish football’s strange patterns. Sports psychologist Carole Seheult has been working with professional athletes for over twenty years. According to Seheult, coveting third place as the highest achievement for clubs outside of the Old Firm could be the root of the problem.

“If you come third one year then surely your goal is not to come third again, but to come first or second. Unless you can turn your mind to that and have that as a goal then you’re not even going to come third,” she said.

Seheult believes that, by accepting third place as the pinnacle of possible achievements, Scottish teams are placing a glass ceiling above their own heads. “If you think that you’re going to be happy with third place, then your performance is going to be third rate as well. You’re going to let up. You can’t want to finish in third place. How do you know how well or how badly you have to play to finish in third place?”

Seheult doesn’t believe that there is a Bermuda Triangle in Scottish football. But what she does believe in is the power of the mind to transform myths into reality. “These myths build up about coming third, and what we’re talking about here is a form of superstition. There’s no earthly reason why teams shouldn’t come third again. It’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.

So, is there paranormal activity in the SPL? Probably not. But until a team manages to maintain the mantle of best of the rest and enjoys sustained success, the truth is out there.

If you would like to read more from Matt, please visit his blog ‘When Footballers Tweet’.