Scottish Premier League: In Defence of the Split

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Scottish Premier League: In Defence of the Split
Photo courtesy of www.dailyrecord.co.uk

The Scottish Premier League's decision to introduce a split in the league after 33 games—breaking the league up into two separate groups of six for the remaining five matches—has often been the subject of ridicule and derision, or at the very least contempt, on the part of pundits, journalists, supporters and managers.

What seems to be ignored, though, is the extra dimension the split gives to the league towards the end of the season, in the sense that it provides competition and an extra edge which might otherwise be lacking, particularly in a league where the vast majority of sides normally have no chance whatsoever of mounting a serious championship challenge.

Brought in for the 2000-01 season, the concept was originally conceived as a means by which the league would be able to avoid each team having an overly crowded fixture list of 44 games while maintaining a 12-team league.

For those of you who perhaps don't follow Scottish football, here's a brief explanation of how the whole thing works.

After 33 matches have been played, the league is divided into two divisions of six, dubbed "The Championship group" and "The Relegation group."

From this point on, each team plays the other teams in its particular group once, with movement between the two in terms of league position closed off. For example, there have been a number of instances where the team in seventh place has ended up with more than the team in sixth, but owing to the nature of the split and the difference in the quality of opposition between the two groups, this hardly comes as much of a surprise.

Essentially, the introduction of the split was for organizational purposes, in order to allow for a 12-team league which wouldn't see teams playing too large a number of games.

Some managers—Craig Levein and Walter Smith most notably—have come out in criticism of the split, feeling perhaps that it hadn't personally worked out in their favour at times and have called for a move to a larger league, but would that really solve anything?

As it is, the split genuinely does give the league an extra level of excitement, even if it doesn't get the credit for the innovation it is.

Teams are desperate to make it into the top six to get a chance at qualifying for Europe and to get the prize money which increases the higher up you finish, and even if the bottom six matches are often criticised for being dull and uninteresting, this only increases the incentive for teams to avoid playing there and makes competition for places all the more fierce.

Saturday afternoon was the perfect example of what the split can provide in terms of excitement.

Aberdeen, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Hibernian all went into their games with a chance of securing a top-six finish, and as the situation chopped and changed over the course of the 90 minutes, it took until practically the last kick of the ball for things to be resolved.

Hibs had ruled themselves out of contention, going down to a 3-0 defeat at Parkhead, but with Kilmarnock drawing and then trailing to a Gary Harkins inspired Dundee, Aberdeen and Dundee United both only needed a goal in their match at Tannadice to guarantee themselves a place in the top six.

As the minutes ticked by, it started to look increasingly likely that Kilmarnock were going to limp over the line, only for Rory Boulding to pop up right at the death to snatch victory and a top-six finish for United.

Drama, intrigue, nerves, a stoppage-time winner—what more could you ask for?

In an age where football's biggest games are so often turgid and uninspiring, and in a season where few leagues in Europe have given us anything even approaching a title race, we should be glad when we do get a bit of excitement, and it's pleasing to see that the SPL is still capable of serving it up.

Of course, we'd all rather if Motherwell, Dundee United or Inverness Caley Thistle were challenging Celtic for the title, but you'd be naive to think this had ever been a possibility.

People have every reason to criticise the SPL, an entity whose very purpose and existence seems questionable, but they deserve credit when something they introduce works out.

In the case of the split, I think they got it pretty spot on. 

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