The news that Dumbarton had dismissed manager Alan Adamson on Monday evening was met with little more than indifference. Adamson was a popular figure, amiable and generally well-regarded amongst the Dumbarton support, but after a rum series of results – the club have picked up a meagre two points from a possible 27 – his sacking seemed entirely appropriate.
Perhaps Adamson is the victim of his own success. After replacing Jim Chapman midway through the 2010-11 season, he steered the Sons away from relegation and consolidated their position within the Second Division. Last year, an astonishing run of results between January and February elevated the club into the play-off places, a position where they would stay for the remainder of the season. Victories against Arbroath and then Airdrie United secured a remarkable promotion to the First Division for the first time since 1995-96.
With the exception of the most myopic supporters, many connected with Dumbarton fully expected a long, difficult season, but with part-time sides Cowdenbeath and Airdrie United also promoted (the latter’s ascent was confirmed after Rangers’ demotion to Division Three), there was a genuine belief that the club could compete and survive – by beating their immediate rivals and developing a stuffy, defensive approach against the division’s more established teams, Dumbarton could perhaps finish the season in eighth or ninth place and maintain their status as a second tier side.
As we now know, it didn’t quite work out like that. The first two league matches set the tone for their season. An opening day trip to face Airdrie at New Broomfield – the ground where they had impressively secured promotion three months previously – resulted in a dismal 1-4 deconstruction, while the following week they were pulled apart 0-3 by Cowden at the Rock. As their rivals acquitted themselves to the division, Dumbarton were crushed by Partick Thistle, Greenock Morton and then Dunfermline. Against Hamilton, they contrived to throw away a two-goal lead to tie the match 3-3, conceding twice in stoppage time.
Some maintain that Adamson should have been given more time to correct the recent run of results, particularly given his previous successes with the club, but it is difficult to mitigate in his defence. His loyalty to last season’s squad – a core of very ordinary Second Division players – seemed ill-judged, while the majority of his signings have been questionable. Granted, Garry Fleming and Jim Lister have proved to be canny acquisitions (in particular, Lister has been Dumbarton’s outstanding player so far, a major surprise given the derision towards his signing in June), but the players recruited from First Division sides have performed poorly – Stephen McDougall, Andy Graham and Ross Forsyth have all been disappointing.
Although not to the same extent as their current travails, a team like Dumbarton were always going to struggle in the First Division, and although Cowdenbeath and Airdrie have performed reasonably well so far, it is not unfair to expect the pair to join Dumbarton at the foot of the table as the season progresses. The difference between part-time and full-time teams cannot be underestimated; the chasm between the Second and First Division is often always impossible.
Scotland’s second tier is thought to be the country’s most competitive league, but the gap in quality between the sides chasing promotion to the SPL and the sides competing to avoid relegation is astonishing. More often than not, the league can be easily divided into two very distinct entities: the full-time teams, and the part-time sides who spend the season occupying eighth, ninth and tenth.
This is not the case elsewhere. The difference between the Second Division and the better teams from the Third Division is infinitesimal. For example, Cowdenbeath secured back-to-back promotions between 2009 and 2010 (although it should be noted that their promotion to Division Two was because of Livingston’s relegation to the basement league); Forfar Athletic and Arbroath, promoted in 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively, finished in the play-off positions the following season; and the current Alloa side were considered as an outside bet to win the league this season. For a part-time club to do something similar between the Second and First Divisions seems outrageous.
The differences between part-time and full-time football are obvious. Full-time footballers are fitter, better conditioned and have little by way of distraction between matches. Their managers and coaches have more time to prepare strategies, work on tactics and the team shape and develop cohesive ways of getting the very best out of their players. Part-time players, meanwhile, are preoccupied by their day jobs, while managers have little time to work on drills and methods to improve their charges. For the best part, when a part-time player reaches his mid-twenties, he’s as good as he’s ever going to be. Other factors such as money – most full-time clubs have far greater resources available and are able to attract a higher calibre of player – must also be considered.
Although the Second and Third Divisions remain open and competitive with healthy promotion and relegation between the two, the First Division is beginning to resemble a closed shop, where part-time sides are more than welcome to visit, but are never allowed to stay any longer than 12 months. Take Ayr United, for instance. Over the last five years, the club have been in a permanent state of limbo, too good for the Second Division but not good enough for the First. After their promotion in 2008-09, the club have yo-yoed between the leagues. The same applies for Cowdenbeath, whose league status has been in a similar state of flux (that said, given their early season form, both teams look likely to break their promotion/relegation cycles this term). Very rarely are full-time sides relegated from the First Division for their on-field performances. Only Gus McPherson’s execrable Queen of the South side of 2011-12 suffered this particular ignominy in recent years.
In many respects, the current play-off system goes some way to perpetuating the gulf between the divisions. The system works well in England in divisions of 24 teams, but it seems senseless in leagues of ten. As exciting as the format can be, it allows bang-average sides the opportunity to compete in a division they are ill-equipped for. Last season, Dumbarton finished the season in third place, five points behind a talented Arbroath side, yet after two knockout ties, were promoted ahead of them. It is pure speculation as to how Paul Sheerin’s part-time side would have coped in the First Division, but one would imagine they would have collected more than two points.
It seems peculiar that the problems with the transition between the First and Second Division have never been truly taken into consideration before. The “one season up, one season down” phenomenon between the divisions has almost become a perpetual theme. If the SFA and SFL are genuinely looking into the possibilities of league reconstruction (a pertinent topic given the thorny issue surrounding Rangers’ demotion), then one would hope they can correct the inequalities between the two leagues, and in turn, adjust the disparity between part-time and full-time football in the Scottish Football League.