Blog: Disaster of Dundee must result in positive change of Scottish football

Finger-wagging is easy, and as Dundee sit currently on minus 11 points following a deduction of 25 points, it is unsurprising to see some schadenfreude on internet forums.

The popular analysis is that any club who goes into administration twice in seven years must have recklessness built into its DNA, “they should have learned their lesson the first time” is a common banner around which such sentiments are wrapped. However, as the analysis of the herd often does, this simplistic take on a complicated situation rather misses the point. Why, having been in intensive care once after overdosing the drug of credit did they feel the same adrenaline rush again? What are the hopes and aspirations that facilitated and fed another unaffordable spending spree, fronted this time by Calum Melville and rather vast quantities of monopoly money? (and why, on another matter, is HMRC not established as the preferred creditor for monies coming into a football club? If we are talking about learning lessons then Portsmouth and Notts County should have been short, sharp shocks to all of us…but that is for another day).

The irony is that were it not for a superb run of results from Terry Butcher’s ICT side at the tail end of last season, then the blame game hanging over Dens Park would not be taking place. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it now appears that the plan was to get into the SPL with a side that the Dark Blues technically could not afford, and then clear up the mess with the increased revenue that came with elite level status.

It goes without saying that this was not explicitly stated at the time, indeed the mantra from Melville was about the club being “debt free” and thus being in a strong enough position to make substantial signings such as Leigh Griffiths and Gary Harkins. As the Dee stormed out of the blocks at the start of last season, contributors to Dens Park forums were generous in their praise of the man who was by all accounts making it happen.

There was indeed much love for the man who was ‘bankrolling’ the success of the club as their lead over ICT at the top of the first division stretched into double figures at the mid point of last season. Had the Dark Blues kept their nerve, or Butcher’s side not gone on an incredible unbeaten run to end the season, then the fact that the club was effectively ‘doing a Notts County’ may never have come to light. And the love-in at Dens Park would have continued. As it was the charge stalled, Jocky Scott left the club for the third (and possibly final) time, and ICT raced past them playing like men possessed in the season’s finale. And now we are where we are.

It is probably unrealistic to expect sympathy from other First Division clubs, as most spent the majority of last season competing against eight sides who could probably afford the squad they had and one who clearly could not. Livingston and Partick Thistle agreed substantial fees to sell Griffiths and Harkins respectively, and the Jags saw their own challenge in the same league weakened by a side using what was in reality taxpayers’ money.

Spending £275,000 on two players is a massive deal at a level equal to League One or Two in England – to put it into another context, with Rangers hamstrung by the bank, only two clubs in Scotland spent a six figure sum on an individual player last season. One was Celtic and the other was… Dundee. It is not only Tannadice regulars who are less than tearful at what is going on, and many outsiders see 25 points as a just and fair punishment – after all Livingston were demoted two divisions after their own meltdown. Perhaps it is a waste of one’s time to try and get them to see the bigger picture. But this writer will have a go anyway.

The problem is that club football in Scotland has gone stale, predictable and has lost its appeal. Having got used to an established duopoly in the 1990s, the same teams continued to play the same opposition four times a season. When it became apparent that this was creating tedium on an epic scale, the SPL’s stroke of ‘genius’ was the end-of-season split, which sees the top and bottom six sides play each other. This still leaves a league that is monotonous, produces the same cycles of fixtures featuring the same teams, and protects the status quo with a closed-shop one-up and one-down situation. About the only thing that the SPL has going for it at the moment is the Old Firm, who guarantee two decent crowds a season for everyone else, while remaining the main reason that the league attracts any substantial television deal. Outside the top flight, the format is the same, all of the same problems persist, and yet there is no golden goose, no cash cow to make it worthwhile. Dundee, who happen to take away contingents in the thousands rather than the hundreds, are seen as huge fish at that level.

A club with a proud history in the top division as well as in European competition, they are wasted outside the SPL yet have the dice loaded against them by its format. It is bloody difficult to get in (ask Falkirk, St Johnstone) and in some ways just as difficult to get out (this writer has nothing against Kilmarnock, but what have they, for example contributed to the SPL recently beyond not being relegated?). While what happened at Dens Park was not big or clever, this writer can see how the temptation came about to throw make-believe cash at a ‘surefire’ promotion that subsequently went wrong.

Currently under discussion and consultation is the reshaping and restructuring of the Scottish Leagues to try and re-generate interest in what is a fading product. A 16 or 18 team league with each team facing off home and away, would surely open up the competition. It would encourage longer-term thinking, youth development and stop the influx of average Football League players over the border (as well as the unheard of foreign players who return home after a season). It would also facilitate the short break over New Year that many have been crying out for.

Moreover, it would enable sides perfectly capable of playing in the top division to do so – sides like Ross County, Dunfermline, Partick Thistle and, whisper it, Dundee. The major stumbling block as always will be television, who see Old Firm games as the league’s star attraction and would have one every week if they could. Hopefully the suits at the FA will recognise two key points whether Dundee’s 25 lost points are reduced on appeal or not.

Firstly, while it is true that Rangers vs Celtic is seen as four high points on the calendar, this is only because the format of the competition has made the rest of it so dull and unattractive to the neutral. Secondly, they may well reflect that had the league been structured in an enticing and competitive way, then there would have been no need for what has happened in the last 12 months at Dens Park. It would have been neither possible nor necessary, and hopefully this will figure in the discussion when any restructuring takes place. The real tragedy for Scottish football would be if the disaster of Dundee in 2010 did not result in positive change. Let us all hope that it does.

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