The Natural Order

The “Natural Order” in terms of Scottish football is a phrase that has been branded about for many years particularly within journalism and the media, but during the 2017/18 season in particular it surfaced as one of the key phrases used in the debate about promotion from the Championship to the Premiership.

Radio Scotland’s ‘Sportsound’ show seemed to go into overdrive in the early winter about this matter, when Dundee United and St. Mirren emerged in December from a tightly contested division as the two most likely winners of the second tier, sparking a debate not about the current footballing ability of each respective squad, but who DESERVED promotion in the opinion of the pundits based on their own perception of history and that supposed “Natural Order”. In good old Radio Scotland terms, who was more entitled to go up?

It was clear early in the months that followed that the overriding opinion was St Mirren were not the chosen club of the pundits, and the Tannadice club must prevail against the odds of having a significantly inferior squad to Saints and gain promotion for the good of the game. The “Natural Order” must be preserved and St. Mirren simply have to fail.

Personally, I found these opinions strange but nevertheless expected. Without looking at any great detail I knew in terms of major trophies won the two clubs have a very similar record (United have five compared to Saints four) but Saints had almost half a century more years as a top flight club to their advantage, so logically the argument made little sense to exclude one club so easily.

However as the individual pundits repeatedly stating their belief in this mythical elite were all over fifty years old and relatively young men in 1983 for example, it was therefore predictable in my opinion that they would see the period of the decade immediately after league reconstruction in 1975 as the most key and relevant period in Scottish football, and basically ignore the century before.

It did get me thinking however. Why is this period so important and not the 1960’s for example, when Dunfermline and Kilmarnock had fine sides? Or the 1890’s when Dumbarton were champions twice? What about the other 110 or so years, in other words the vast majority of our league history? Why did this suddenly not count for anything?

And what about clubs like Motherwell, Dundee and indeed St. Mirren or Partick Thistle who more often than not have managed sustained long periods of top flight football without necessarily having a brief purple patch to mask opinion? Should they not get recognition? Where do they fit into the “Natural Order”?

Football pundit’s all over the world are paid to give opinion of course, I have no real issue with that, but occasionally it would be good if they backed it up with fact. Merely predicting before the play offs that Dundee United will be promoted “because of their history”, an actual prediction by one pundit in 2018, just isn’t good enough when it was clear by March they were third or even fourth best team in the Championship.

I don’t have anything against Dundee United. It is not their fault the media have latched onto them as some kind of establishment club needed to save Scottish football, but I simply had to find out if their status among the elite was more justified than other clubs, with Saints of course my primary concern.

As this media debate was primarily about League status and where a club should “naturally” be placed, the only way to do this in my opinion was go back to 1890 when the Professional League was formed and create a points based system where the more successful a club is during a season the more points they get, and do this 124 times until we get to 2018/19.

However, although points were awarded for each league position every season, extra points were awarded for winning leagues as this has obvious historical impact, as well as performances in major cup competitions and European football. Once I had calculated all of this after much research, I then considered the minor or one off competitions, some of which were not very significant such as the Dryburgh Cup where very few points were awarded for winning it, but on the other hand some of these competitions were very significant at the time such as the Coronation Cup, which had a far bigger reward for winning.

Of course over the history of Scottish football many clubs have fallen never to be seen again, or amalgamated with others, or been introduced at a much later date, but in total 80 clubs have played league football in Scotland, and this is their historical rankings based on success since 1890:

*Updated on 28/5/19 for the 2018/19 season.

Position Club Points
1 Celtic 8240
2 Rangers 7804
3 Heart of Midlothian 4889
4 Aberdeen 4772
5 Hibernian 4594
6 Dundee 4122
7 Motherwell 4077
8 Kilmarnock 3867
9 St. Mirren 3794
10 Partick Thistle 3627
11 Falkirk 3289
12 Dundee United 3181
13 Morton 2829
14 Clyde 2792
15 Airdrieonians 2707
16 St. Johnstone 2703
17 Hamilton Academical 2590
18 Dunfermline Athletic 2534
19 Raith Rovers 2355
20 Ayr United 2262
21 Queen of the South 1808
22 Third Lanark 1771
23 Queen’s Park 1728
24 Dumbarton 1630
25 East Fife 1620
26 Cowdenbeath 1251
27 Arbroath 1205
28 Stirling Albion 1178
29 Alloa Athletic 1100
30 Clydebank 1009
31 Albion Rovers 977
32 Forfar Athletic 912
33 Stenhousemuir 866
34 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 857
35 Brechin City 772
36 Ross County 715
37 Livingston 704
38 Stranraer 669
39 Montrose 616
40 East Stirlingshire 593
41 Berwick Rangers 547
42 St. Bernard’s 485
43 Airdrie 349
44 Leith Athletic 338
45 Meadowbank Thistle 251
46 The Rangers 243
47 Peterhead 228
48 Port Glasgow Athletic 218
49 King’s Park 199
50 Bo’ness 177
51 Arthurlie 140
52 Gretna 134
53 Abercorn 113
54 Armadale 112
55 Bathgate 99
56 Vale of Leven 83
57 Johnstone 81
58 Broxburn United 80
59 Elgin City 77
60 Ayr 60
61 Renton 58
62 Annan Athletic 55
63 Lochgelly United 50
64 Nithsdale Wanderers 39
65 Edinburgh City 26
66 Solway Star 20
67 Dykehead 17
68 Royal Albert 16
69 ES Clydebank 15
70 Beith 14
71 Linthouse 14
72 Clackmannan 13
73 Helensburgh 12
74 Peebles Rovers 12
75 Mid Annandale 11
76 Galston 10
77 Cambuslang 9
78 Dumbarton Harp 7
79 Ayr Parkhouse 2
80 Cowlairs 1

Unsurprisingly to me, Saints ranked inside the top 10, a position that would have them in the Premiership based on historical success, as like some other clubs mentioned previously we have stuck at it mostly in the top division for over a century without getting much credit or love back. However we are the highest ranked team never to win the top division, and therefore undoubtedly the biggest underachievers.

Dundee United finished in twelfth place, enough to justify the media outcry that they are a top division club, but below Saints and therefore not proof they deserve it more than us for historical reasons. It simply isn’t true Willie Miller, 1983 is only one year in a much bigger picture.

However, having done this research decade by decade, it was obvious the Tannadice club shot up dramatically from the 1970’s until now, and along with Aberdeen were the biggest beneficiaries of league reconstruction in 1975 for around fifteen years before they both settled back down to more or less their recent historical average in the seasons that followed.

The Pittodrie club’s ranking was a surprise to me however, and I guess I have been a victim of the media perception the Dons are Scotland’s great third force, when historically it has been Hearts. 1983itis is still relevant today as we well know.

While Aberdeen and Dundee United have benefited from a reduction in the number of clubs in the top division, some have suffered immeasurably, in particular Morton and Clyde who have stagnated in the years since the 1975 restructure, and just can’t seem to get a foot back in the top league despite some very close calls in the 1990s and this century. History has a funny way of working in cycles, and eventually they will both return at some point.

Of course, no historical analysis is flawless, but in any similar exercise carried out the results have been comparable. Next time you hear someone say we don’t belong in the top division however remember to tell them the facts are more relevant that opinion.