What’s Off With Scottish Playoffs?

Scottish Professional Football-League

The playoff system has been long established in world football, and is oftentimes an incredibly simple process. The best example of a playoff system is the English Championship. 1st in the league are champions, 2nd gain automatic promotion, and then 3rd through 6th engage in the playoffs. Best play worst, and so on, ie 3rd play 6th and 4th play 5th. Two legs, highest seeded team getting to play their home game second, in what is perceived as an advantage. The winners then meet at a neutral venue, in this instance, the national stadium of Wembley. All very simple, very logical, right? Well why then can Scotland not replicate this? While the English (and pretty much the global) system, allows the better placed league team to have a slight advantage, the Scottish system actively discourages the lower finishing from gaining promotion.

The first issue to highlight is the pathetically small size of leagues that Scotland have. The top flight has 12 teams, while the lower three professional divisions have 10 each. In the top flight, the team finishing 12th are automatically relegated. The team in 11th go into a playoff spot. This is transferable to the lower divisions, where 10th is an automatic relegation and 9th involves a playoff. Consequently, in the lower divisions, the team finishing 1st gains automatic promotion, while the teams finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th also join the second bottom team in the above divisions in a playoff system.

In Scottish league 1 and 2, the playoff system is as you would imagine, 9th in the above division play 4th in the lower division, and 2nd play 3rd. The winners then play each other. The final is where the problems arise, but we will come back to that, as this issue is also problematic in the Scottish Championship playoff, which is the main focal point of this article.

The Scottish Championship has always been a tough division, as there are an abundance of good teams more than capable of rubbing shoulders with those in the top flight. In recent years, Hearts, Hibernian and Dundee United have all been relegated, as well as the promotion of liquidated and reformed Rangers, to add to an already competitive Championship. Teams such as Falkirk, Queen of the South and Raith Rovers are also competitive teams in that division, all capable of challenging falling giants who entered the division. With such a competitive division, the expectation would be that the playoff system would be designed to create a competitive, fair way to see the best of the four teams promoted.

Yet for some bizarre reason, the Scottish Championship does not follow the logical system of 11th playing 4th, and 2nd playing 3rd. Instead, the format is as follows:
• 3rd play 4th in a two-legged tie.
• The winner of the above game plays 2nd in a two-legged tie.
• The winner of the above game plays 11th in a two-legged tie.
This ludicrous format is incredibly unfair to the teams who finish 3rd and 4th in the Championship. Take one particular example from this season. Greenock Morton performed out their skins at points this season, with their manager Jim Duffy guiding them to 4th in the league. They went on an impressive run of form mid-season, sandwiched between a terrible start and disappointing end to the year. It became apparent that they were not going to finish 2nd in the league, nor would they drop to 5th, out of the playoffs. They opted to rotate and rest their squad, keeping players fresh for what would be a long and tiresome playoff campaign. Their rivals, Dundee United, still had aspirations of finishing 2nd, however. They managed to bottle this in spectacular fashion, finishing 3rd eventually. They now go into the playoffs knowing that if they wish to return to the top flight at the first time of asking, they must win three ties, playing six matches in 19 days, on top of playing a full strength team for weeks on end. This quick turnaround would be a struggle even for top flight European teams. Putting this duress on players of this level, some of whom are part timers, is brutal.

The idea to give a benefit to the team finishing higher is logical, but this system simply isn’t fair. Even the quick turnaround for the team finishing 2nd is still an exertion. Falkirk finished 2nd last season, and met Hibernian in the playoffs. The two teams had developed into fierce rivals that year, and the battle which took place between Falkirk and Hibs was herculean.

The teams battled hard at Easter Road, with the score sitting at 2-2 after the first leg. The second leg was also sitting at 2-2, with extra time moments away, a potential nightmare for Hibs who had already played a double header against Raith in the quarter final of the playoffs. While the prospect of extra time was daunting, what happened next was crushing for Hibs, as Falkirk forward Bob McHugh nicked the winner two minutes into stoppage time.
This victory was well earned by Falkirk, but took a lot out of them. They met 11th in the Scottish Premiership Kilmarnock, in a two-legged final. The game was incredibly cagey and Falkirk battled hard to grasp a last minute winner to give Falkirk the advantage going into the final game.

The final game was a step too far for the Bairns. On a sweltering day in May, a long season, and a laughably long playoff campaign proved too much, and a well rested Kilmarnock, who knew for weeks that they couldn’t finish rock bottom or 10th, picked Falkirk apart. Two early goals gave Falkirk a mountain to climb, and midway through the second half Killie hit a quick fire double to end Falkirks dream of returning to the top flight. Falkirk, player for player, would be a match for Kilmarnock in a one-off game, but in these circumstances, it was a massacre.

Due to the limited budget of many teams in Scotland, particularly in the lower leagues, the size of squads are especially small. Sure, a team the size of Manchester United or Real Madrid would complain at the packed schedule that these Scottish playoff teams, often they have similarly tight schedules what with league, domestic cup and Champions League football. The difference is that bigger teams have money, and consequently, a large squad. Look at Manchester United of this season, Jose Mourinho’s squad has been decimated by injuries, and as a result, his squad is struggling to cope with the games coming thick and fast. He will moan to all that are willing to listen about how threadbare his squad is, and yet really, this is the sort of hardship that full strength teams in the Scottish Championship face.

Scottish Championship teams more often than not don’t have a large squad. On average, there is a starting 11, plus a few competent players to throw in if injury or poor form dictates, but beyond that, youths are needed to pad out a squad. While a Champions League level team has a squad built to play six matches in 19 days, a Scottish Championship side simply does not. There is very little scope to rotate as a result of the cutthroat nature of the playoffs. Fatigue is a killer and is why the team finishing 3rd or 4th will nearly always fail to gain promotion. The team finishing 2nd will also struggle due to the fixture congestion, however, this is more manageable. Hamilton managed to defeat Falkirk in the playoff semi-final in 2013/14, before defeating Hibs over the two-legged final.

The playoff system is startlingly unfair, and the solution is obvious, 11th plays 4th, 2nd plays 3rd. It isn’t exactly rocket science, right? The lower divisions in Scotland at least follow this structure. Well the geniuses in charge at the SFA (Scotland’s miserable attempt at a governing body), cannot grasp this concept. Even if the current, ridiculous format of 3rd plays 4th, winner plays 2nd, all two-legged affairs stand, the issue of a further two-legged tie against the 11th placed top flight team is a step too far, and one which is unfairly balanced for the deescalating team.

As if the Scottish Championship playoffs aren’t longwinded and torturous enough, the final is simply ridiculous, particularly as it isn’t a final in the traditional sense at all, but rather an outdated two-legged final. Assume, hypothetically, that the team finishing 3rd reached the playoff final, and that each two-legged tie culminated in extra-time, the final included. This would involve the team playing 630 minutes of football in 19 days. The three lots of extra time adding a further 90 minutes, essentially making it seven games in 19 days. The team finishing 3rd or 4th are not being rewarded for their finish in the league, but rather, they are being punished!

Simply put, the final should be a one off event, at a neutral stadium. Hampden Park would be the natural choice, however a 50000 plus stadium for a lower-league event may be overkill. A neutral stadium of an acceptable size, preferably equidistant between the finalists is all that is needed. This would give the team in 11th an advantage in that they don’t play as many playoff games, but crucially, in a one off final, the teams who have played numerous playoff games know that one final push is enough to earn them promotion. The playoffs in League 1 and 2 of Scotland are less convoluted, however the teams there would also benefit from a one off final.

As stated in the opening paragraph, the English league playoffs are the obvious model for success. The geniuses in charge of governing the Scottish game have made an unmitigated disaster of the playoff system. There may be method in their madness though. Does the team finishing 4th in a ten team league really deserve a place in the top division? Ordinarily no, that would be too great a leap. But the leagues in Scotland are simply too small, the team finishing 4th in the Scottish Championship IS good enough to play in the top division, if only they weren’t made to partake in such a scandalously long playoff system to prove themselves. But when the leagues governing body cannot look beyond helping two teams in Glasgow, what hope do the rest of the teams have? It’s a wonder, the SFA bothered to concoct such a longwinded playoff system when in actuality, they simply do not care.

There are ways to make the playoff system better. A one off final for definite. Replicating the English playoff system directly would be a stark improvement. In my opinion, the real change need not even involve a playoff system. The single greatest improvement that the Scottish game could benefit from would be to increase the league to 16 teams, with either an automatic two teams relegated – two teams promoted format, or a one team version of that, paired with a further “normal” playoff system for the second bottom team. All this speculation is simply that, the ramblings of someone who, like so many fans of Scottish football, want to see change, but ultimately knows that no worthwhile change will happen. In such a poorly formulated playoff system, all that is left to be said is good luck to the Championship teams, Falkirk, Dundee United, and Morton, who are all aiming to gain promotion to the top flight in the coming weeks.