‘Sporting Integrity’ is a term that has entered the parlance of Scottish football in the last five years. Since turmoil engulfed Rangers around 2012, fans, players and managers have called desperately for ‘sporting integrity’ to be upheld. Every year when the national conversation amongst football fans switches to the issue of reconstruction, fans proclaim that sporting integrity must be considered before any changes are made.
Throughout the course of this time, the true meaning of the term has arguably been lost. Fans from all sides of debates around the country have hijacked the term for their own purposes. In the name of fairness, equality and – inevitably – more mischievous purposes.
The term first came in to popular usage when the chairmen of 11 clubs had a say on the position that Rangers would take in the Scottish league structure, following administration and subsequent liquidation. Fans of all clubs inundated their chairmen with requests, demands and pleas to ensure that sporting integrity, as they saw it, was upheld. The mooted proposal to allow Rangers to compete in the top flight, or indeed, the second tier following some reconstruction of the game, simply would not be allowed to wash. Fans would boycott, season ticket sales would slump, the game would be done. That was the warning.
In this case, fan pressure paid off and Rangers started the 2013-14 season in the then third division. The fans of the ‘diddy’ clubs were jubilant. A victory for sporting integrity, they claimed. Rangers had done wrong. The rules could not be changed in the interests of finances, or perceived threats, that much was clear.
Many followers of Scottish football have claimed that these events, with Rangers no longer a top-flight club, paved the way for reconstruction. This reconstruction, in 2013 saw a few changes to the game in Scotland. Bureaucracy was to be cut with the merger of the two bodies that oversaw the game. Previously the SPL had managed the top flight and the SFL had managed the three leagues below. This merger created the SPFL to oversee all leagues. Another change saw the renaming of the leagues. The leagues were named after their English counterparts (much to the chagrin of many Scottish football fans) and the Premiership, Championship, League 1 and League 2 now make up the league system in Scotland.
These mainly aesthetic changes have had little impact on the Scottish game. Indeed, the change in body that oversees the running of the game and the slight renaming has had no tangible effect on the Scottish game. The more substantial changes came in the form of the introduction of playoffs. A playoff for promotion to the Premiership and a playoff for entry to League 2 from two regional leagues below, the Highland and Lowland Leagues.
Where does sporting integrity fit in with all of this, then?
For as long as organised football has been played in Scotland, the game has been a closed shop. The fourth tier (League 2) was an invitation only league. Until 2013, there were 42 teams in the league and these same 42 teams would always be in the league. The only threat to their league status was financial mismanagement. Only bankruptcy could force a club out of the league.
This allowed clubs to rest on their laurels. East Stirlingshire, for example, finished bottom six years on the bounce from 2001 until 2007. It didn’t matter. There was no punishment, no detriment, no reason to improve. East Stirlingshire inspired a book entitled ‘Pointless’, they were frequently dubbed as one of the worst teams in the world and in 2002 they managed just eight points, conceding 118 goals in the process.
Meanwhile, ambitious clubs playing in the regional leagues below looked on, frustrated. Teams that had spent thousands on building their infrastructure, paying players and generally building their clubs watched on. They wanted in to the league and it seemed that East Stirlingshire didn’t deserve to stay. Why should they not have had the chance to enter the league?
That chance did come every so often. In the event of a club going bankrupt or in the event of any league expansion (two extra clubs were invited in 2000 when the league changed from 40 teams to 42), clubs could make an application to the league. They would submit their documents and make a presentation to the league. Would they be allowed in? This worked for Elgin City, Peterhead and Annan Athletic, amongst others. The decision was a business decision. Which club had the best facilities, the most potential? These were the considerations to be made. The footballing ability of these teams didn’t matter. Their league finishes, utterly irrelevant. Inevitably this method left the jilted clubs disappointed.
That is where sporting integrity comes in. The playoff between the bottom league and non-league, finally means that clubs are admitted to the league structure on the basis of merit. There may be a minimum requirement for clubs in terms of their ground, however ultimately promotion will only be secured with achievements on the pitch. The road to league football is clearer now than ever. Win your league, win the playoff and you are a league club. A club can now enter the lowest point in the pyramid and progress to the very top (in theory).
When Annan were admitted to the league in 2008 following the demise of Gretna, two notable clubs had their applications rejected. Edinburgh City, the third team from the capital and Cove Rangers, from the third biggest city in Scotland. They were ambitious clubs with big plans. However, it wasn’t to be. Their applications were not adequate. They would not be allowed to enter.
Fast forward eight years and this Saturday sees the beginning of the pyramid playoff for this season. This will see the winners of the two regional non-leagues facing off over two legs, to win the right to play the team bottom of the league system. The clubs involved? As fate would have it, Cove Rangers, Edinburgh City and East Stirlingshire.
Although it was planned in 2013, the playoff began at the end of last season. This led to a fascinating climax to the 2014-15 season. 2000 people crammed in to Links Park to watch Montrose take on Brora Rangers in the second leg of the final. Never before (and perhaps never again) has a kick off at Links Park been delayed by 15 minutes due to a large crowd. Never have people been packed so tightly in lines outside the stadium with seconds until a scheduled kickoff. It was a great day for Scottish football. Montrose would ultimately win the day and stay up. There had been much discussion before the game about whether Brora truly wanted to be promoted. While there can be no question they gave their all, many people assume that they would have been happier with the defeat and the opportunity to stay in their regional league.
This year is different. This year sees two clubs desperate to break through the glass ceiling of the non-league, in to the promised land of league football, coming up against each other. Cove Rangers have applied twice. They absolutely see themselves as a league club. Edinburgh City are dreaming of big things. They have a huge potential support and promotion to the league could only be helpful in helping them to build interest. With a poor East Stirlingshire side coming down, most people are tipping the non-league clubs to win the playoffs. Many would argue that the true final is being played first. The winner of the non-league clubs will enter the league, they say.
However the playoffs pan out, one thing is for sure. The playoffs have changed the game in Scotland. They have delivered sporting integrity for the very smallest clubs in our game. No longer will conditions of entry be based on having the most seats or the best facilities. Promotion will be won, as it should be, on the pitch. In ‘blood and snotters’ matches, with every tackle counting and every inch on the pitch being fought for. This is Scottish football at its best. Thousands will turn out to watch these games. People will take an interest in their local teams like never before over the course of the next month. At the beginning of next season, Scottish football could be saying goodbye to one of its more (in)famous clubs. Whether it will be welcoming a fresh face, and whether that will be a team from north or south remains to be seen.
Those in charge of the game in Scotland have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. However, in the case of the pyramid playoffs, the powers that be have got it absolutely spot on. Not only is it fair, it is exciting. It creates interest that is much needed in the Scottish game. This weekend sees the beginning of the battle. Football fans watch with interest. Who will win the war?