Scottish Premier League clubs made surprising progress in their latest meeting on change today when they agreed to seek a merged 42-club structure including top-flight play-offs.
And chief executive Neil Doncaster bullishly declared the new system could be in place by the start of next season.
The agreement comes less than a month after St Mirren and Ross County vetoed plans for a merged 12-12-18 structure because they were unconvinced by the merits of splitting the top two leagues into three after 22 games.
The SPL clubs held further talks over introducing play-offs last week without coming to a conclusion but, with First Division clubs subsequently threatening a breakaway from the Scottish Football League, the 12 top-flight clubs moved further than anticipated today when they resurrected much of the ideas on the table last month.
On offer now to the SFL is a merged league of 42 clubs; an all-through distribution model with more money diverted to the second tier; play-offs involving the 11th-placed team in the top flight and three second-tier clubs; and a pyramid structure ensuring movement into the professional league.
As with any development in the lengthy debate on Scottish football’s way forward, there is the potential for progress to stall. The SPL previously declared unanimity before failing to secure the 11-1 majority needed for the previous plan and a formal vote needs to be taken later this month.
The SFL board and lower-league clubs will have to react favourably to the plan, although failure to do so could spark the threatened breakaway. The clubs would also need to approve the plan by a 22-7 majority, with Rangers excluded from voting because they are still associate members.
The SFL was not involved in today’s talks ahead of the announcement.
But the SPL board’s message after today’s talks was “where there is a will, there is a way”, and with the make-up of the divisions remaining the same, there is less of a hurdle to overcome.
Hailing the agreement, Doncaster said: “It’s what all clubs have hoped for and we are delighted that everyone has compromised and we have got some agreement.
“There is no reason why this shouldn’t be acceptable given it maintains the 12-10-10-10 structure, it doesn’t interfere with any of the play-offs they have got coming up and hopefully we can move forward with agreement from everyone.”
Change appeared to be stifled when the new split system was rejected by St Mirren and Ross County. The financial redistribution plan was based on creating extra revenue from the so-called middle-eight.
And Doncaster claimed the SPL clubs should be applauded for opening themselves up to the increased possibility of relegation.
“There’s a real desire for change but it’s not quite as simple as just play-offs,” he said.
“There is obviously working within a single merged league, which is what supporters tell us they want, but also redistribution down the leagues to favour the second tier so that full-time professional football remains sustainable at that level.
“The SPL clubs were today very sympathetic to the plight the First Division clubs find themselves in financially.
“There is a genuine desire to ensure there’s a proper promotion and relegation between the divisions. The SPL has the smallest proportion of clubs relegated anywhere in Europe.
“So there is a need to ensure there is refreshment and clubs have been bold today. They have agreed they are prepared to take on the greater risk of relegation within a merged league.
“There would need to be a continued system of parachute payments, but also by redistributing money into the First Division, then it’s a less painful landing if you are relegated.
“Play-offs certainly give you more to sell – more broadcast rights, more sponsorship rights, and of course there’s more people coming through the gates. That should mean a net gain for everyone.”
The SPL’s sponsorship deal with Clydesdale Bank expires in the summer and, with the brand having suffered amid the Rangers crisis and failure to instigate reconstruction, a merged body is seen as a more attractive prospect to potential backers.
Doncaster said: “What this does mean is that we can work together, assuming there is agreement, in ensuring suitable sponsorship arrangements exist across the whole league.”
Although First Division clubs have been determined to force change, the SFL board and some lower-league clubs have been more cautious. But Doncaster is sure they can introduce the new model before next season.
“We need to work quickly, there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “But if everyone is agreeable, there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t take place in time for the summer.”
Fixtures are due out in five weeks but, given the 12-10-10-10 structure would remain, Doncaster admitted the merger could even be ratified after that.
“Theoretically, yes,” he said. “Obviously it’s desirable to have it achieved as soon as possible, and if everyone is agreeable that it is the right way forward then it can happen.”