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What price Premiership?

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In most cases when a team suffers relegation, you expect its supporters to be the ones most upset or angry about their circumstances. We’ve all seen the photos after the full time whistle goes, when the prospect of life in a lower tier sets in and the tears start to flow as season tickets and scarves are discarded onto the pitch in protest. Yet, for Hearts fans, the experience of dropping out of the top flight in recent years has seen very little of that.

In the 2013-14 season, the 15-point deduction dished out at the start of the season was a double-edged sword, creating a siege mentality throughout the club and a target to aim for while simultaneously tempering expectations that it could actually be overcome with such an inexperienced, threadbare squad. When the bell finally tolled on Hearts’ top flight status that season, in spite of a 4-2 win away to Partick Thistle, there was an acceptance of our fate and an overriding sense of pride in the players for their efforts.

Even in 2020, there are parallels to be found. There may be no insolvency event or points deduction to blame for our plight and there was certainly significant unrest in the stands and across social media throughout the season, as well as a palpable disconnect between the fans and players, but the final blow (or at least the manner in which it was dealt) has done more to unite the Hearts support than break it. The emotional turmoil that usually accompanies the prospect of relegation simply hasn’t been there – at least, not for those in maroon.

By contrast, the issue of Hearts’ demotion and potential reconstruction-based reprieve has caused untold torment for supporters of other clubs, many of whom have worked themselves into quite a state during the past couple of months. What these supporters fail to realise is that Hearts fans have always acknowledged the possibility that reconstruction talks could fail, especially when their success is so heavily dependent on other member clubs considering more than just their own interests. Of course, no Hearts fan is delighted at the thought of being forced to play Championship football next season either, but watching everyone else torture themselves over the thought of us staying up has been a welcome break in the clouds.

So despite having a two-month old insomniac in my room these days, it’s a real comfort to know I’ve been sleeping more soundly than the Hibs and St Mirren fans who spend their nights tossing and turning, as the thought of Hearts escaping a “deserved relegation” drives them gradually demented.

With the Belgian Competition Authority recently declaring Waasland-Beveren’s relegation from the Jupiler League an infringement of competition law (following a decision-making process similar to the SPFL’s) those sleepless nights look set to continue for the foreseeable future. One only hopes that instead of staring at the ceiling or crying into their pillows, they use the time productively to draft their angry letters to the SPFL, UEFA, Holyrood, Brussels and anyone else they think cares, before dialling up their usual sex line to vent any residual frustration.

But what price Premiership status? As entertaining as our rivals’ meltdowns have been, there comes a time when the talk of reconstruction grows tedious even for a Hearts fan. For this writer, that point arrived earlier this week when the notion of Old Firm Colts teams was unearthed and dusted down like the family photo album for another outing.

It’s an idea that’s been peddled for so long you can almost set your watch by it, so it was only a matter of time before it was repackaged as a reconstruction proposal. Over the past few days, west coast apologists have naturally dressed this up as Old Firm philanthropy: the gift of their presence to teams in the lower leagues with a pledge to purchase 200 tickets for every away fixture thrown in as a financial sweetener. However, that which we call a jobby by any other name would stink as badly and this one carried a real stench of self-interest.

Funny, it seems like only a week or so ago when an actual philanthropist with a lengthy track record of charitable donations came along to offer his financial support to Scottish football and – due to his existing ties with Hearts – was immediately met with a volley of bribery accusations. By contrast, the underlying motives and financial incentives associated with the Colts proposal were treated with considerably less suspicion, despite the convenient timing of its re-emergence.

Don’t believe the narrative. Unlike James Anderson – whose donation to the SPFL Trust has since proved to be the magnanimous, no-strings gesture so many refused to believe in – this was not the Old Firm riding to the rescue. It was sheer opportunism to force through a plan they have harboured for so long at a time when they undoubtedly saw lower league clubs at their most financially vulnerable and therefore more likely to kowtow. It appears they misjudged their audience.

There are several reasons lower league clubs were never going to agree to this. For starters, the lower leagues are made up of teams with rich histories, local rivalries and close ties to their respective communities; the presence of youth teams would only serve to devalue and dilute that. If crowds at Irn Bru Cup games have been anything to go by, the demand to see top flight teens in action simply doesn’t exist among lower league fan bases. If anything, the promise of advances on away tickets was an admission of that.

Then there’s the suggestion that Colts teams would provide younger players much-needed first team experience, coupled with the fanciful theory that this would benefit the national team further down the line, which appears to gloss over the existence of the loan system. What it amounts to in practice is a hall pass for Rangers and Celtic to play their youngsters in a risk-free environment, a safe distance from the first team and any title challenges, while their top flight counterparts are left little alternative but to test their own at Premiership level or loan them elsewhere.

Most important of all is the integrity of the pyramid. To suggest clubs in the Highland, Lowland, East, West and South of Scotland Leagues would step aside willingly to let Colts sides take the SPFL places they’ve been investing and striving to reach themselves, not only smacks of an arrogant Old Firm belief that they are more worthy of those places, it also makes a mockery of a pyramid system so many clubs have bought into over the past few years. If Colts teams are ever to be introduced, they should be required to start at the very bottom.

Fortunately, Hearts’ odds of Premiership survival appear to no longer hinge on the introduction of this unpalatable proposal, the avoidance of which made a season in the Championship seem worth it. Nevertheless, the news coming out of Belgium has clearly not gone unnoticed on these shores, with Ann Budge reportedly preparing to step up her own legal fight.

What price Premiership status? Judging by Neil Doncaster’s latest efforts to see a 14-10-10-10 system over the line, less than the court fees.

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