Originally written for The Red Final issue 141 (February 2021)
Tuesday 19th of January, I found myself partaking in a common custom, watching Italian fitba. This time a clash between Roma v Spezia in the Coppa Italia. Armed with the usual beer in hand and cat on my lap ,I watched the underdogs clinch a surprise 4-2 victory against a beleaguered nine men Roma, culminating in a wonder strike from Ricardo Saponara* . As I looked on my brain fired into gear as a few things popped into my head. The first being that I reckoned this was the first season I had seen Spezia as a Serie A team. It did not take long for me to work out I was indeed correct as it was in fact their maiden season in the Italian top flight in their 114 year history. The second detail, I believed that Roma had been ever presents in my almost thirty year obsession with the Italian game . I was again accurate on this count and their run in the top flight pre-dates my parents births. 1952/53 they returned to Serie A following one season in B after their only relegation to date. The third thought was the amount of teams I had seen in Serie A over the years must have been colossal. It seemed to be a revolving door of sides with a new team every year. This fact then got me thinking of our own top flight in Scotland and how we have not seen many teams come and go from the Premier in my time heading to Pittodrie. By this I mean many of the teams promoted have been up and down like a yo-yo. Was this true or was I just making it up? . Well, we know it is boring when looking at the top with only the two names on the trophy since 1985 with a third to be engraved by May breaking the thirty-six year, two team monotony. But are we as dreary at the other end as other European leagues as I seem to think we are? Is it our own fault for such a small set up? I decided to dust down the abacus. Warning If you don’t like enumeration turn the page now.
2020/21 marks thirty seasons for me actively following Aberdeen, my first game being against Dunfermline at a sun drenched Pittodrie. The league that season was made up of the Dons and the Pars obviously , the rest of the numbers being made up by r*****s (original), second placed Hearts, Celtic, Dundee United, Hibs and Airdrieonians who sandwiched us in 6th, St Johnstone, Falkirk, Motherwell and St Mirren who followed Dunfermline into the second tier. Since then 2020/21 sees only three ever presents still standing. Ourselves, Celtic and Motherwell still ply our trade in the upper echelons and have watched many come and go and even cease to exist in some cases. The following season after my first venture into the Merkland saw Dundee joining the set up for one of their numerous fleeting visits(4 and most in the timeframe) as did Patrick Thistle who succeeded in one of their three promotions in the last three decades. Kilmarnock came up in 1993 and have managed to survive to this day despite numerous flirtations with the drop. Also came Raith Rovers for their first crack at the top flight since 1969/70 but were to be relegated post haste. The subsequent seven seasons saw nine teams promoted, all of whom had showed face further back in the Premier since my inaugural season. The next untried team to turn up were in 2001/02 when Livingston made their début in the top flight. This taking the grand total of fresh faces in my first set of ten promotions to five. This coming from fourteen promotions in total, but bearing in mind 92/93s new teams were a given as it was only my second season.
The next ten years did not fair very well either. Patrick opened proceedings in 02/03.This was followed by no promotion into the league for 03/04 with Brockville pissing on Falkirk’s chips yet again. This time in a worse fashion than in 1997/98 when Motherwell were spared a playoff with the Bairns. Or 1999/00 when against common belief and urban myth Aberdeen were not spared relegation but with Dunfermline Athletic we were spared a three way playoff. This time must have been harder to take as they were outright champions and had an agreement in place to use Excelsior only for it to be controversially rejected by the leagues beaks. The next year saw the appearance of the first ever Highland side Inverness Caley entering the big league just ten years after coming into existence. Three seasons later Gretna and their faux fairy-tale rolled into town but the dream was short lived as was their near future as they were liquidated in a year taking the tally of dead ex-Premier league clubs in my day to two as Airdrieonians had bitten the dust six years prior, but we all know the reaper had not finished his work. The following season another new face appeared armed with a gazebo, in stepped Hamilton Accies and were the last new face of my second decade of viewing, taking the total to a measly eight in twenty three promotions to date.
My third decennium started with another club like Livingston, Caley and Gretna who had never graced the top flight in their history let alone recent past, Ross County. This coming in slower fashion than their Highland neighbours after the Staggies took eighteen years to ascend the ladder. Usual suspects Dundee and Patrick popped in on us again in the following seasons before the last of the new clubs(double meaning here) presented itself just after its fourth birthday complete with the inevitable hard done by attitude and delusions of who they pretend to be. Since then Hibs, St Mirren, Ross County and Dundee United have made their way back. That rounding up my 30 seasons.
In terms of statistics, we have seen a total of 22 teams play in the League(3 now extinct). Total promotions comes to 35. Of the 22 total teams only 5 were never promoted throughout (Aberdeen, Airdrie, Motherwell, Celtic and the Blue dodos). 17 clubs have been promoted, 10 of which being missing from my first season. How do you go about gauging if its tedious or not? You could say it only averages at one new club every three years but this is a bit simple. Two things need to be taken into consideration. Firstly, the process of calculating the amount of promotion places against the new names, which would give a percentage of 28.5% (35/10). I will also go with working out the percentage of new names against the total amount of clubs promoted which is as equally important. This meaning in terms of the Scottish top flight, over the last thirty seasons 58% of all clubs promoted were new names when they first made the step up(many have went on to future promotions)
Are these damming figures? Are they average? Are we in fact not boring up our way? I realise that the bigger the league the more promotion meaning more chances for teams. For that reason I have kept it varied. As stated at the top, these thoughts all stem from watching Italian fitba. So what better place to start. Back in 1991/92 the league was won by AC Milan at a canter. The Rossoneri are one of four ever presents in the league with city rivals Internazionale and eternal Roman enemies Lazio and Roma. This its self is a surprised me, given the league has been made up of eighteen or twenty teams throughout the thirty seasons yet only has four constant names. Also in the league were big names like Juventus, Parma, Sampdoria, Fiorentina with the likes of Cremonese, Ascoli, Bari and persistent upper and downers Hellas Verona. As stated there has only been four teams whom have went the distance this immediately pointing at a decent change out. Foggia were in the original league but relinquished their position in 1994/95 season never to return meaning there have been 45 teams promoted. A major overhaul would be true and with four relegation spots for a few seasons it opened the door for more change. Between ‘91 and ’21 no fewer than 32 outfits have made it out of Serie B. From multi promoted teams such as Lecce(7), Brescia, Atalanta and Hellas Verona (all 6), Empoli(5) to one hit wonders such as the team who started this “investigation”, Spezia along with Como, Treviso, Carpi and more there have been 50 teams graced Italy’s big boy league. This averaging at around having a new team every year. If we use the places v new names it equates to 29% as there have been 109 total promotions. The new teams v total promoted teams comes out at a whopping 71% (45/32). Impressive.
Since I have looked into two of my three most followed leagues naturally I’ll head to the third. The Eredivisie , my most visited league outside of Scotland. The 91/92 table had the big names that I am sure you can guess, with the rest made up with the likes of Twente, Willem II, Sparta Rotterdam, recent foes Groningen, in fact had a similar look to today with the only differences being the presence of MVV, Volendam, Dordrecht, pogo club De Graafschap (Most promoted with 5) and the team I have seen the most on my Dutch adventures, Kerkrade’s Roda JC. There have been 30 teams in total in the top flight meaning only 12 new teams have been promoted and 25 in total. Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord, Vitesse and Utrecht are ever presents. Much like Scotland a new team every third season is pretty much what the Dutch have seen. But Scotland fairs better in the new teams to amount of promotion slots 23.5% (51/12) and new teams v total teams promoted is 48%. The fans have clearly been repeating the same journeys for a long time now in the Lowlands.
Taking other leagues into consideration, we could look at the remaining “big” divisions. The English Tourist League, since 1991/92 (when it wasn’t crap) Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have stood strong. 51 teams have played their trade with a healthy 29 newbies chasing the monster that is the obscene mega bucks. 31% of promotions have been taken up (94/29)and mercenary jamboree betters Italy slightly with 74% of teams have been first timers (39/29). La Liga is another league I had a suspicion had seen vast numbers of sides over the years, with remembering teams like Extramadura, Gimnastic, Compostella and Hercules kicking about. I wasn’t wrong. The stalwarts of 50 teams are also at a surprising low number of four clubs in Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona who as I write currently sit at €1173 million in debt teetering on bankruptcy and might buck the trend. Like Italy, La Liga has had 30 fresh clubs promoted and 43 total. Obviously this is on average 1 a season. In terms of promotions it’s the highest so far at 35% (85/30) and against re-promoted sides it’s on par with the Italians at 70% (43/30) . Germany has 5 mainstays, Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke who this season will almost certainly face the drop. 26 greenhorn clubs have made it with a total of 45 getting their Bundesliga fix, with Koln and Bochum up and down like an old man’s spaver. 37% of all promotions (71/26) and again 70% of teams promoted (37/26) are the stats to accompany the turnaround
What about the “lesser” leagues, two of which I am desperate to visit in Belgium and Denmark. In the land of beer, chocolate and chips(and you wonder why I am bursting to go) Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Standard Liege, Genk and Ghent have stood the test of time in 45 competitors. 27 newcomers have made it with 38 clubs going up, total promotions comes in at 67 meaning 71% total promoted clubs and 40% against total promotion spaces. Denmark has had 32 clubs, 2 survivors in Brondby and AaB and 22 have stepped up which comes to 40% of promotions(62/22) and gargantuan 78% old v new (28/22), the highest yet. Staying in Scandinavia, the beautiful country that is Norway. A league that has been extremely boring at the top end with a run of thirteen in a row (nine pfffffft) from Rosenborg which got underway the same season my days at Pittodrie started. They have gone on to the crown a further seven occasions since. But what about league turn over. How does it fair? Going back to Trondheim’s Troll Kids, they are last man standing from 1991. There have been 34 teams pass through with 23 rubes presenting themselves. This meaning 31.5% of all promotions(73/23) and a respectable 66% of teams(35/23). Interestingly high numbers considering the league was 12 or 14 teams for a good proportion of the 30 years. France sees one of the biggest surprises of my geeky research given league size. A league that started as 18 teams and upped to 20 has only had two ever presents in Paris Sheik Germain and Lyon out of a total 46 sides. 26 new and 42 total clubs have made the step up. This sitting the figures at 32% of all promotions (26/79) and 61% in first time v repeats (42/26) . Last up takes us to ten comparisons which seems a broad enough spectrum for this piece. Over the Irish sea to ROI. Dublin duo St Patricks Athletic and Bohemians are still kicking about. 22 teams have seen promotion with Drogheda United out in front as serial offenders on 6 with Finn Harps one behind. In terms of the class of ’91 versus the incomers there have been 12 made the leap meaning 55% of the promoted (22/12) and the percentage of total promotions comes to a measly 22% (55/12)
There we have it the Scottish Top flights last 30 years up against another ten leagues. I picked leagues that are similar in size to our own league ROI and Denmark with Norway to an extent. There are not many on the continent to be honest. I also selected them from the remaining sizes of 16/18/20 to get a broader look. It wasn’t as easy as you would think to select top flight leagues. Back in 1991/92 some leagues were closed shop like in Northern Ireland for example this plus all the political turmoil in the continent since then means a lot of leagues were not even in existence in the summer of ’91. There has also been a lot of league expansion and compression in this period, Norway being a good example as it has grown from 12-14-16. What are the lessons learned from it all. Ever presents are not as common as I had expected, with 39 only teams from the original 1991/92 180 clubs. I also realised that there are patterns of two or three serial yo-yo teams wherever you look. We have Dundee, Dunfermline, Patrick, England have West Brom and Crystal Palace, Netherlands have De Graafschap, Go Ahead Eagles and Excelsior. In Spain Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano play the proverbial snakes and ladders. Denmark have the two Vs in Viborg and Vejle BK, France sees Troyes and Metz, basically every league looked at had these types, but there is one club above the rest . Lecce, or Italy’s equivalent of a whoors drawers who have been promoted to Serie A seven times in thirty years and subsequently relegated. They have spent pretty much half the time going up or going down. Also noticeable that all but two leagues have had enough teams promoted to replace the whole league barring Scotland and the Netherlands. There is also the obvious correlation between the bigger leagues having better numbers as hinted at the start but it’s not always the case.
What about the original reasoning behind writing this whole piece? Is our league boring? I would have to go with an indefinite yes and prior researching I knew this would be the answer, but I wanted to eliminate any bias. It is not the worst statistically, that goes to the ROI on both fronts. But it has the second lowest percentage of old v new promoted teams and the third lowest percentage against total promotions too. There is an argument that a 12 team league is actually a hindrance. With Ireland and Scotland having a combined total of 22 new teams between them, they are equal or less than every league bar two in The Netherlands and Denmark, which itself is a 12 club league. But the Danes have had ten more clubs progress. So for that reason I think picking another 12 team league as my chosen comparators have come out at opposite ends of the spectrum is the appropriate course of action here.
Let’s sail back to Scandinavia, to Finland. A twelve team league throughout the entire 30 years. HJK are the only ever presents and for league size a hefty 37 clubs have taken their place in it. With 25 new clubs against 35 old this comes in at a very decent 72% . A total of 50 promotions have come off meaning it comes in above all other countries at 50% on that count . KuPs of Kuopio being the most prolific club with 5 meaning Lecce have retained their throne in terms of the promotions. Old Dons adversary, RoPs are on 4 but may add to this in the coming term after relegation from the Veikkausliiga last season. Not quite as prolific going up and down the leagues like near neighbour Santa is at clambering up and down chimneys, but they are getting there.
Back to it, the top flight of Scottish fitba is tiresome. I have uttered these words for years as many other have. There is no getting away from it. We all knew about Celtic/R*****s and their dominance, but I wrote this piece to prove that the league is shite from top to bottom. The stats don’t lie. It is there in black and white. I don’t want to even make a defence for it being down to a 12 team league because I would be lying. Norway was a 12 team league for a large part of the time and it has been reasonably variable. Then its neighbours, Finland and Denmark both 12 team leagues are ahead of every other division in both frequency and amount of fresh outfits. Which shows it can be done. Our league is fucking garbage and being served up the dirge that we as Aberdeen fans have had to endure for the last couple of years, just adds to the malaise, disdain, lethargy or whatever you want to call it that is directed towards a Saturday these days.
With these Corona times and the financial impact it is having , surely we should be looking into improving our game for the better. (That goes for you as well McInnes). I don’t mean fannying about. I mean immediate changes (again McInnes). Clubs are struggling for cash and the game is incredibly stale. I don’t have the silver bullet answer to solve things . It is also not my job to solve things. But for a long time one thing I do think would be beneficial are larger leagues for starters. Yes this will mostly benefit the incoming Premier teams to start which would most likely be old faces if we went to a 16 team league with the possibility of maybe Ayr or Morton joining the fray. This going on this season’s current second tier table. But over time would benefit other clubs. It would also benefit our own fans, a trip to Rugby Park or Dens could be replaced with adventures to Palmerston or Cappielow . A change will do you good! This would be aided by another change I think is imperative. Jettison the playoffs and do straight relegation/promotion two up/two down. Playoffs in Scotland are stacked in the favour of the relegation threatened team who usually come out on top. A third change I would make is top flight teams play away if paired with a lower league team in the League Cup. Like in Germany. If an Annan, East Fife or Peterhead get an Aberdeen, Celtic or Hibs that gate money could go a long way for these teams. It would also eliminate the ridiculous seeding bollocks we currently have. We should be seeking out fixes to preserve our lower league teams while concurrently looking to enhance our game. As long as these enhancements do not include fucking colt teams.But in truth, thinking this could happen is a pipe dream as it would counter the rules of our game, especially the “must have four (ahem) Old Firm derbies” and sticky balls ideologies.
So here’s to another 30 seasons of vapid, sterile, coma inducing pish.
*YouTube “Riccardo Saponara Chip Goal” it may cheer you up after this gloomy piece. Exquisite stuff