By Shaughan McGuigan:
The Scottish domestic season may be all but over but that doesn't mean to say that the talking points are finished. Indeed, the see-saw nature of how it feels to be a fan was summed up this week when Raith Rovers striker John Baird announced that he was leaving the club to sign a pre-contract agreement with Dundee. The initial sense of goodbye and good luck to the fan favourite seemed to give way to a sense of apprehension about where the club was heading. Baird's departure came after Willie Dyer left to join Morton while a whole raft of other departures is expected from a club that has been entirely open about the extent of its cutbacks.
The next day however the gloom seemed to have been at least partially lifted. While the signing of a left back may never have the wow factor to compensate for the loss of a popular striker, the acquisition of Eddie Malone seemed to at least give fans some encouragement that the massive rebuilding job that John McGlynn must oversee was taking a step in the right direction. Perhaps the most interesting part of Raith's first summer signing however wasn't the identity of him but rather the type of deal it was, one year and part time.
Ayr United made it to Hampden despite having part-time players. Photo by Gary McLaughlinThe fact that Raith were heading down the route of part time football was no secret. The board released a statement to that effect at the beginning of May and came on the back of media reports at the turn of the year that the club could face losses of up to £200,000 based on the seasons attendances up to that point. The club had even experimented with lowering the prices over christmas and new year in attempt to get more fans through the tunstiles but it met with little success.
The reversion back to a mixture of part and full time players was met by a mixed reaction from fans and the doubters did have evidence to back their argument up, with the First Division historically showing that part time teams normally struggle to retain their status in the league. This season had the perfect example in Ayr United, relegated via the playoffs after slumping to defeat against Airdrie last weekend.
That fails to tell the whole story however. Ayr are a club who made the choice to remain entirely part time when they gained promotion to Division One last season. Despite that decision they still managed to finish above full time Queen of the South and bar a late surge from Raith Rovers in the final quarter of the campaign, may even have stayed out of trouble altogether. Rather than showing that a part time club could not compete at that level, Ayr actually exemplified what was possible in the league on a limited budget.
Raith's move to part time football may be sniffed upon by some but the fact is that all clubs are going to have to cut their cloth accordingly to survive. While fans would far rather be lining up in a league alongside the likes of Dundee, Dunfermline and Falkirk rather than Stenhousemuir, Brechin and Stirling Albion, it isn't so important that it should be allowed to endanger the future of the club. With gates of approximately 1600 every week then only the most unrealistic of fan could criticize the move. As director Turnbull Hutton pointed out, a club simply cannot afford to remain full time on gates of under 2000.
Perhaps though Raith have struck upon something that other clubs could follow. In recent years Queen of the South have posted record losses, while Falkirk have also reported poor financial figures. Dundee have been in administration twice while Livingston have been in the same boat. Even Dunfermline, just relegated from the SPL made late payments on players wages earlier in the year and are said to have made a significant loss this season. In short, the First Division is a veritable who's who when it comes to running the financial side of a football club badly.
The stagnant nature of the First Division, forced upon it by the self preservation principle of the SPL which ensures that only one club comes down each year means that clubs are actually punished for showing ambition. There certainly cant be too many leagues in the world where finishing second gives you absolutely nothing in return. Even by winning the league and gaining promotion, as Dunfermline proved last year, the SPL is hardly the land of milk and honey.
While the SPL continues to appoint men like Neil Doncaster to run the ship, a man who measures success by the size of the cheque the league receives from Sky, rather than the opinion of the fans or the quality of football on the park then the game in this country will continue to walk along a precipice. The financial landscape in Scottish football is shifting and with the authorities seeming powerless or unwilling to act then the clubs will have to start to move with it. Raith Rovers may be the first full time club to revert back to part time football but there's every chance they wont be the last.