It’s undeniably important that Hearts steer clear of trouble.

by James Willis

For so long it’s been claimed that Scottish football has been dying a slow and horrible death. The Old Firm derby being one of the last remaining things keeping the league respectable.

Then came the ultimate dagger to the heart. Rangers entered liquidation and, to most extents, reinvented themselves as a brand new company and club down in the third division. Despite this, there is still an insistence that they retain the history of their former incarnation.

With the Old Firm derby now on temporary hiatus (until that inevitable cup draw), the nearest things the SPL has to derby matches are Aberdeen and Inverness or Hearts and Hibernian. Although, with Hearts recent financial woes, the SPL may yet lose another key team.

As one of Scotland’s more historic sides, Hearts have recently been trying to bolster the European appeal of Scottish football with their Europa League exploits. Perhaps, though, that’s a slightly generous phrase given that their success in Europe was always severely limited.

The club have put in relatively strong performances against both Tottenham and Liverpool in the Europa League in recent seasons, but any real success has looked beyond them. With their current situation off the pitch, these ambitions look to have been put on hold for now as well.

Were the SPL to lose Hearts, it would appear as though it would do irreparable damage to the league. However, whether that’s true or not isn’t the most important thing for Scottish football right now.

If the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League would merge into one association, or even agree on something, it would be taking huge steps to secure the future of football development in the nation.

Hearts’ predicament shouldn’t be wished on any club, regardless of stature, size or ethics. Although, if their current situation would cause the SPL to take some of the SFL’s proposals more seriously, it may be better for everyone involved.

It’s undeniably important that Hearts steer clear of trouble and that should be their priority. In fact, that should be the priority of the SPL too. Though they could also take steps to secure the future of all clubs by working with the SFL to develop the national league system.

At the moment it’s a simple four tier set up with similar promotion and relegation rules to most other leagues.

One suggestion for the future is to build a proper pyramid of football in Scotland. Much like England’s set up, containing around 7,000 clubs spread over more than 480 divisions. Scottish football could do with a similar idea, albeit on a smaller scale.

Currently there is no threat of relegation from the third division and no hope for promotion from any amateur leagues beneath that. Correcting that, while requiring a large overhaul, would in no way take the nation backwards and, if anything, would actually provide a more forward thinking layout to the system.

It has also been proposed to change the way that the SPL and the First Division work with each other. While expanding the SPL was one option, that would merely dilute the talent in the league further and make it an even less attractive proposition for any potential ‘big name’ signings.

The most sensible option that seems to have been raised is the idea of a two part season. Similar to the way in which the SPL splits half way through the year; under the new proposal the top eight teams in the league would split off half way through the season to play each other again. The bottom four teams in the SPL would then join with the top four teams of the First Division in another eight team league to decide who would play in which division the following season.

That would potentially give four new teams tickets into the SPL each season, but only if they deserve it and only at the expense of other sides which they have beaten.

It would therefore leave the bottom eight clubs of the First Division to play their own league from the same half way stage of the season in order to avoid relegation. This being no different to the current “bottom half” idea in the SPL.

Giving more teams a chance in Scottish football seems essential to the nation’s development, but it has been a controversial and much discussed topic over recent years. If it isn’t done properly, it could kill off more clubs and dilute the talent that is already there.

This is, again, where the troubles of Rangers and Hearts come in. If the SPL plans to take it’s future seriously and avoid any other clubs suffering financial troubles, then they will put their full time and effort into finding the right solution for the entire country.

With all of that said, doom and gloom isn’t the only route forwards for Scottish football if transformation of the league system happens slowly.

As mentioned, Hearts have showed some encouraging performances in the Europa League qualifying rounds over recent years. At least, they have on occasion. Celtic’s campaign in this season’s Champions League has also been something to remember, most obviously summed up by their shock win over Barcelona.

It’s not only in Europe that there have been some encouraging signs though. While it would be almost impossible to find a safer bet in football than Celtic winning the SPL, the league this season is still surprisingly close for this time of year.

Last season there was also evidence of the progression of some of the smaller clubs, especially since neither domestic cup was won by an Old Firm club. Hearts won the 2011-2012 Scottish Cup, beating Edinburgh rivals Hibernian in the final by a convincing scoreline of 5-1.

Even more impressively, Kilmarnock took the Scottish League Cup title. After a late extra time win in their Ayrshire derby semi final against Ayr United, Kilmarnock beat Celtic 1-0 in the final, wrapping up a memorable yet rare trophy for the club.

Although surprises like these can’t be expected every season, there is clear evidence that Scottish football is on the verge of something that most fans probably wouldn’t have expected. The SPL may soon become a more level playing field for all teams involved.

Despite Celtic looking like the runaway leaders for the foreseeable future, the battle for the runners up position and European qualification will be more intense than ever before.

The quality of football may find itself in a temporary lull, but with more competition, league development and the occasional “Celtic-Barcelona” upset, the long term future of Scottish football could actually turn out to be rosier (well, thistle-ier) than ever before.