The AFTN Blog: Should Scottish football go cap in hand?

The AFTN Blog: Should Scottish football go cap in hand?

In my lifetime Scottish football has always been about the haves and the have nots. The rich sides at the top and those struggling just to pay their weekly bills at the bottom.

We all know where East Fife have been sitting in that pecking order.

Now say what you will about our previous boards, and we certainly have, but the one thing they should be at least praised for is not having the Fife living beyond their means and going into serious debt that affected the whole future of the football club.

The downside of that of course is the perceived lack of ambition and relegation battles. Not the most exciting thing to entice back fans, increase revenue and get the club back challenging again. A vicious circle and one that we hope we’re starting to break out of with the new regime.

Personally, I’m just happy that we have a local owner once again that has a plan in taking the club forward in a fairly reasonable manner.

Football club spending is out of control in the UK, especially when it comes to the wage bills.

In England you have silly money being splashed out in League Two, never mind the Premiership and Championship.

It even goes down to non league level. Crawley Town would have been unlikely to move up through the non league ranks to their current lofty position in League One without some big spending. It may have pleased their fans but it has united opposition supporters in their hatred of them.

Part jealousy of course. Deep down, and not even that deep for many, we’d love to find a sugar daddy that will bankroll our team to success and take us all the way to the top flight. We had a taste of it a couple of years ago when Willie Gray helped bring the first Championship to Bayview for 60 years.

Scotland has had some crazy money being splashed around by Celtic and Rangers. Big name, highly paid imports have been the order of the day since the Souness revolution at Ibrox in the mid 80s. Celtic were a little slow off the mark in keeping up but then overtook their cross city rivals, before Rangers came back with more big spending that saw them fall from grace and end up in the plight that they are in right now.

Other clubs tried to compete as best they can, paying stupid money for wages they simply couldn’t afford or sustain on the crowds they were getting through the gates.

All that mattered was getting into the then SPL, getting their shiny new stadium and six to eight games a season against the Old Firm.

The result is we’ve seen the downfall of clubs like Livingston, Dundee and Dunfermline as they tried to live the high life and burnt out. They’ve had to rebuild and are in various stages of that. Gretna of course paid the ultimate price for living beyond their means and Hearts are the latest club on the brink.

My money would be on at least one other Premiership side joining them in club threatening financial peril before the season is out.

In our current division we have Rangers paying obscene amounts of money for players to play in the third tier of Scottish football and no one else in the division can compete. Hardly a level playing field and I’m not sure the financial rewards of TV money and bumper gates really compensates for a season where 90% of teams in the league are battling for a second place spot that doesn’t even guarantee them promotion.

Something has to be done to reel things in and it’s clear that many football clubs are incapable of taking that initiative themselves and need to have something put in place by the authorities to force them to take the necessary steps.

UEFA has introduced their Financial Fair Play, which really primarily applies to the top dogs that want the Champions League cash cow and it will no doubt have more wiggle room than a house full of worms. It doesn’t really solve the problem of those clubs that want to be at the top table no matter what the long term consequences may be (see Portsmouth).

So do the footballing authorities have the guts to make that stand? One solution would be to introduce a salary cap.

As a fan of American sports it was a term I’d heard but didn’t really understand all the ins and outs and implications of. In short, it’s League rules that specify the maximum budget a club can spend on player salaries in a season. Each club in the division has the same maximum budget. They don’t have to spend it all.

There are some wage exceptions that can be made for a small number of special players but basically it brings all clubs to a manageable level.

It’s rare in football in Europe, but both rugby and ice hockey have adopted it to great success.

I became really familiar with the salary cap when I started following Major League Soccer.

The idea of the salary cap in MLS is to bring parity and set a level playing field where every team starts of the season with a chance of at least making the playoffs and with hopes of winning the whole thing in the MLS Cup.

And it’s been working to an extent.

There have been five different MLS Cup winners in the last six years. This season is one of the tightest there has been with 15 of the 19 clubs realistically being in with a chance of making the playoffs with ten or so games to go. In the Western Conference, just eight points separate the top eight teams.

There are downsides. Each team can have three ‘Designated Players’ who can be paid whatever the clubs want to pay them with only a certain maximum amount counting towards the cap. Thus certain, more glamourous teams can stack the deck a little.

That leads to farcical situations where you have Thierry Henry in New York earning a guaranteed $4.35 million and playing on the same team as fellow forward Amando Moreno who is earning the league minimum $35,125.

Would a salary cap work in Scotland and England? It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever see the English Premiership sides want to reduce how much they can pay their players but it could have a great effect in stabilising the Scottish game.

There was always a maximum wage in football up until January 1961 when Jimmy Hill led a player revolt that threatened strike action. Wages were capped at £20 a week (£377 in today’s money!), which was about the average wage for a worker in the country at the time.

It meant full time footballers were non existent and they all had jobs during the week, often tough ones like working down the pits.

Even after the maximum wage was abolished in the “New Deal”, wages didn’t start to go through the roof right away at most clubs. I was recently reading an article about Franny Lee in When Saturday Comes. Lee was a highly talented player from the 60s who whilst playing for Bolton had to take on a window cleaning round and opened a hairdressing salon and laundrette to supplement his income, despite being one of the best strikers in England at the time.

Unheard of for modern day big name footballers, whose biggest problems are which endorsement deal to sign next and how long they need to wait till their new Porsche comes into the dealership.

For a salary cap to work today it would need to be at a decent level and a sliding scale through the divisions.

In the Premiership it would reduce Celtic’s dominance and bring the rest up to an equal footing, making it a lot more competitive and should bring back the fans and excitement missing for many a year.

It would also hopefully see a rise in homegrown Scottish talent, which in turn would help the national team.

In our division, wouldn’t it be great if Rangers could only pay the same amount for their squad as East Fife or Arbroath? You have a League One with some real interest and not just some sideshow for the bored media’s amusement.

It may all seem like a pipe dream but if we are to save the game in our country and especially save some of the current clubs playing it, we need to start thinking a little out of the box.

A salary cap would be a start. There is a lot more that would need to follow.

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Authored by: GoF

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