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Is the Championship a ticking time bomb?



It may not have Rangers or Hearts or Hibs in it any more, but the Championship is still a league worthy of plenty of attention.

Firstly, there's a title race (no, there isn't one in the Premiership. Rangers being six points behind does not a title race make). Whether Ayr can sustain a challenge is unclear but Ross County are good value for top spot and Dundee United have used their new American money to buy an entire new team in January as they look to pull back the current six point deficit to the Staggies.

Secondly, there's a bona fide relegation battle. As the division's only part-timers Alloa were meant to give a far better account of themselves than Brechin's wretched squad last season, but were still certainties to finish bottom. Except someone forgot to give Jim Goodwin the script; his Wasps currently lie in ninth.

Their position actually looked stronger a fortnight ago but Falkirk and Partick Thistle - both of whom made an insane number of signings in January - seem to have found form and pulled themselves back within touching distance. Now only three points separate the bottom four with Dunfermline having being dragged into a relegation dogfight.

Yet the middle of the table is so close that the Pars are just eight points off a promotion playoff. On any given Saturday, anyone can beat anyone else. This league has been busting coupons all season long.

So it's all rather exciting. So exciting that...pretty much everyone wishes they weren't in it.

Alloa are the exception to that statement; the second tier is realistically as high as they can aspire to and staying up should be sufficient to make Goodwin a Manager of the Year candidate. But the other nine teams all have aspirations to go up. Inverness, Dundee United, Ross County and Partick Thistle have all been in the Premiership recently; Dunfermline and Falkirk have plenty of history at the highest level; Morton, Queen of the South and Ayr can all point to Livingston's recent success and ask "why not us too?"

The other problem is that the Championship is not a very good place to be from a financial point of view, particularly since the big fish of recent years (and their enormous away supports) have left the pond. In recent years, the biggest financial concern for Scottish football has been top flight clubs spending outwith their means. Right now, it is smaller full-time clubs finding that is increasingly hard to make ends meet.

For those relegated to the second tier, turnover drops by more than £1million in the first season following the drop, not least because the prize money for even winning the Championship is just half that of the figure for finishing bottom of the Premiership. In recent years relegated clubs have lost a third of their annual turnover as a result. This means huge cuts in the playing squad and elsewhere, making it very hard to bounce back.

Dundee United's losses for last season, their second back at this level, were £200,000 - which sounds acceptable until one discovers that they had to sell their training ground for £400,000 and made £1m from Andrew Robertson's move from Hull to Liverpool. Without this they would have lost £1.6m, following on from £1.5m in 2015-16 (when they were relegated from the Premiership) and £1m in 2016-17. Their annual turnover of £3.1m is also down a third of what they were making two years ago. Without the Robertson money and the new investors they would be in what Scottish accountants (probably) call a 'help ma boab' situation.

It's not just the 'bigger' names who are suffering. Queen of the South are a very solid fifth in the table and were comfortably mid-table last year too. And their star striker, the freewheeling and free-scoring Stephen Dobbie, has his wages subsidized by local businessmen. Their austerity state is summed up by a near-weekly failure to completely fill the subs bench. Yet last week they announced losses for 2017-18 of £200,000. That's twice as bad as the year before, which the club described as "difficult and challenging".

Dunfermline, who enjoy a relatively healthy support, managed a profit for 2017/18 of all of £5,000, and noted they get approximately £300,000 per year in donations. The Pars were of course in administration only six years ago.

So why don't these clubs live within their means? The problem of course is that in football you have to run just to stand still. Fail to invest in the playing squad and you'll quickly get flushed down the toilet and into the seaside leagues where income will be even more sparse. Clubs have to take a financial risk just to stay in this lousy division; the consequences of ending up in League One are for many not worth thinking about.

But of course this is Scottish football, where the attention of the fans, the media and even those in charge of the game is focused on and devoted to only the biggest and strongest. Of course, if asked those people would say that anything other than a full-time second tier would be a disaster for the game in this country. But by the time they notice, said disaster may already have happened.

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