For the time being, this has pretty much ceased to be about Rangers. As the Scottish Football League prepares for its General Meeting on Friday, at which we may (or may not) get a final decision on their league placement for next season, Rangers themselves have assumed the position of bemused onlookers. Most polls now suggest they themselves want to be in the third division; manager Ally McCoist has suggested the same. And even new owner Charles Green, in a moment of uncharacteristic humility, indicated they would accept wherever the SFL thought best to put them, and – publically at least – he has made no effort to pressure them either way.
Instead, the pressure is coming from the SFA, and the SPL on behalf of the other top flight clubs who are trying to minimise the actual or perceived financial damage to themselves following the Rangers collapse. It’s become a battle of wills for the future control of the Scottish game itself – and the fight has been getting increasingly dirty.
I’ve already nailed my own colours to the mast in previous articles, but I will make it clear again that I believe Newco Rangers must start no higher than the third division. It is a fundamental tenet that all clubs must compete by the same rules and on a level playing field. That may be worth a little bit less to Sky TV now, but will be worth far more to future generations. The SPL has already learnt that bending to the will of the highest bidder, regardless of the long-term impact on the game, does not work. The effects on the league of their earlier financial stitch-ups have already reduced the SPL’s value in subsequent contract negotiations.
And if it transpires that clubs have already made commitments based on income that was not yet guaranteed, or that relied on external circumstances over which they had no control, then that’s unfortunate, but it’s a situation that we must deal with. We cannot allow the future shape of the whole sport to be determined by a need to bail out such bad business decisions in the short-term.
In holding this opinion, let me clarify a couple of points about motivation:
Firstly, contrary to many suggestions, this is not about Rangers specifically, or any need to kick them when they’re down or punish them as much as possible – it is simply about fairness and equality across the board.
Secondly, it is not – for me – a definite principle that a new company must start at the bottom. On this point I may be in a minority, but I’m not much bothered by the change of legal entity. A football club is defined by its continuity of support, history and tradition, not by its registration with Companies House – I still regard Wimbledon as being Wimbledon, and Airdrie as being Airdrie (much as they shouldn’t have been able to buy a league place from another club), and by the same token I will still regard Newco Rangers as Rangers. If there was existing rule of precedent in Scottish football that allowed a re-formed club to start a division lower, then I could accept the rule being applied to Rangers as it would be to anyone else. (True, I would think such a rule to be much too lenient and would be arguing for it to be changed, but that’s not quite the same thing.)
But there is no such rule, and there is little doubt that but for the outside financial influence, Rangers would start the season in the third division, where the overwhelming weight of opinion seems to believe they should be.
The SFL will vote on Friday, and all eyes are focused on which way this vote will go. To date, two clubs have indicated they will abstain. One of these is Airdrie, whose Chairman is also the SFL Chairman, and whose own league position will hinge on the result; the other is Dundee, who apparently have been told (and they alone have been told) that they are not able to vote due to a conflict of interest. This statement appears to stand up to almost no scrutiny, but it does conveniently save Dundee the awkward decision of whether to risk annoying their own support, or whether to risk annoying the SPL at a time when they are lobbying to be promoted in place of Rangers.
At the time of writing, some thirteen of the other 28 clubs have indicated – with varying degrees of strength – that they would vote No to admitting Rangers into the first division, though some of the statements have come with wriggle room which suggest they might not be entirely averse to negotiation. On the other side, only Stenhousemuir and (probably) Dumbarton have put their heads above the parapet in the Yes camp.
That seems to leave the Yes camp needing all the undeclared votes in order to secure the simple majority they need to force it through. It’s difficult at this stage to see where they’re going to get those votes from, but there is much arm-twisting going on behind the scenes, and there are a number of concerns about the way the process is being conducted. In no particular order, here are a few of those issues that have been bubbling under during the last few days.
1. The SFL Motion
Here are the full proposals on which the SFL member clubs are due to vote:
(i) That the Scottish Football League Members agree to admit Sevco Scotland Limited as an Associate Member and agrees to permit Rangers F.C. to play in the League during Season 2012/13.
(ii) That the Scottish Football League Members direct the Board of Management of The Scottish Football League (the “Board”) to provide that Rangers F.C. shall play in the Third Division of the Scottish Football League during Season 2012/13 unless the Board shall have to its satisfaction negotiated and reached agreement with The Scottish Premier League and The Scottish Football Association on a series of measures which the Board shall consider to be in the best interests of the game, how it is structured, how it is governed and how it is financed, whereupon the Board shall be authorised to provide that Rangers F.C. shall play in the First Division of the Scottish Football League during Season 2012/13.
(iii) That the Scottish Football League Members in terms of Rule 12 approve the resignation of either Dundee F.C. or Dunfermline Athletic F.C., whichever shall be admitted to join the Scottish Premier League for Season 2012/13, such resignation to take effect as at the date of admission of such club to the Scottish Premier League, notwithstanding that the requisite notice under Rule 12 shall not have been given.Details of the series of measures referred to at (ii) above shall be made available to the Members in advance of the meeting and an opportunity for full discussion of those measures will be given prior to the proposals being put to the meeting.
There are a couple of points here. Firstly, when the proposal to put Rangers directly into the first division was first mooted, it was explicitly linked to constitutional change – and would thus have required a larger majority. By divorcing it from that, and leaving other matters to the discretion of the board, that has now been changed to need only a simple majority.
Secondly, it seems peculiar that they are not being invited to vote on any explicit proposal to insist that Rangers start in the third division, when there is clearly a considerable body of opinion tha believes they must do so. The first proposal, in itself, might suggest that – but there is nothing in the SFL rules to say they must be placed in the third once admitted as a member, and it seems that the board might still have other options even without the explicit approval to act on their discretion as indicated in the second part. This would seem to suggest that – without some amendment being put forward – the only way the SFL clubs have of ensuring Rangers are not in the first is to vote against the proposals in their entirety, and leave a league spot vacant to be applied for by Rangers and anyone else. (There is no great will for this last option. There is no will among the SFL clubs to see Rangers cast adrift altogether, and certainly no will to have to start a process of applications for a new club a fortnight before the season is due to start.)
None of this is insurmountable, but it has raised eyebrows, and done nothing to alleviate the suspicision that the there is an attempted stitch-up aimed at engineering the preferred solution.
2. The Settlement Agreement
Under the terms of the agreement by which the SPL was set up back in 1998, they must pay a flat rate figure to the SFL each season, currently around £2 million having risen with inflation over the period since. When the SPL’s Chief Executive Neil Doncaster addressed the SFL club’s last week he threatened that this sum would be withdrawn – in its entirety – should the vote go the wrong way.
Stenhousemuir’s statement explaining, in some detail, their intention to vote Yes, indicated they had taken this threat at face value and would lose all of their cut of this money should Rangers be in the third.
Others have observed that this settlement figure is a fixed contractual obligation and have baulked at the suggestion of its removal as a pretty cheap threat – on which the SFL were given no legal advice to counter. True, you can’t pay what you haven’t got, and no one wants to see a situation where one league is having to sue the other. But if the SPL is, effectively, admitting bankruptcy, they shouldn’t be abusing this “no one wants to see …” scenario to lever their own solution.
Even if the worst of the financial disaster scenarios comes to pass – which is unlikely – it should not be taken as read that the SFL must suffer the loss – in full – of this obligation. At any rate there is much discussion to be had there rather than take such a threat as a fait accompli.
I do at least respect that Stenhousemuir have come out with a detailed statement of their reasoning, much as I will not be likely to attend Ochilview for the foreseeable future. But one passage in particular concerned me:
Should the SFL vote not to accept Rangers Newco into Division 1, the Scottish FA would expect the SPL 2 proposals to be tabled. Whilst this is not the preferred option of the Scottish FA it would be the most likely outcome. In this situation however the Scottish FA would allow Rangers Newco current appeal against sanctions to be heard by the appellate committee.
With the Scottish FA’s position fully laid out it was evident that some of the options which were under consideration would not be supported by them and in fact limited our ability to affect the final outcome.
In reality therefore the only decision open to us and the other clubs is to a) accept Rangers Newco into the SFL, or b) refuse Rangers Newco admittance to the SFL. If accepted then Rangers Newco would be in Division 1. If not accepted into Division 1, it is apparent that SPL 2 will be the outcome.
Now firstly, of course, it is bang out of order for Stewart Regan, who was representing the SFA, to make such direct threats. But what is more surprising is that at least one club seems, again, to have taken it at face value.
There is no need for anyone to fall for such a cheap bluff – providing the SFL clubs stick together on this, then ‘SPL2′ is a non-starter. Not just because SPL1 is in the midst of proving itself a barely mitigated disaster from first to last, not just because there are only a couple of weeks to the start of the season, but because no such league will be credible if current second tier clubs refuse to join it.
It is therefore imporant that those clubs higher up the SFL clarify their positions. it is not enough merely to say they will vote No to Rangers in the SFL first, they must also make clear they are opposed to, and will not be complicit in, any league rearrangement that would have the same effect. There are some clubs whose statements have been a little ambivalent here – I’m thinking of Falkirk, Partick and Hamilton, at least. They need to make sure that clubs in the lower divisions do not end up voting Yes for fear of being cut adrift by such a new league. Unfortunately, in the absence of such clarity, Stenny’s statement suggests that the SPL’s attempts to divide and conquer may be having some effect.
4. The vacant SPL place
The Premier League knew, after their vote last week which denied Rangers the transfer of their share, that that left them with a vacant place in the top league. They did not fill it. Instead Doncaster made the following, extraordinary, statement:
“That’s not been decided as yet. What will happen is the Scottish Football League will meet next week.They will determine where there is a berth for Rangers and our clubs can deal with it accordingly.”
That this statement has been allowed to pass with so little comment is astonishing, it’s completely head-over-heels in the order of what really should be happening here. Once again the SPL are relying on – and abusing – the fact that the SFL want to get this sorted and do not want to play silly buggers. (If they did, they could quite legitimately bounce the matter back to the SPL and observe that they have no vacancy until such time as one of their members is invited to leave by the higher league.) In the meantime, the uncertainty over the choice of “Club 12″ risks affecting the SFL’s own vote.
Much worse than that, given that the SPL’s own vacancy is entirely unaffected by the decision of where the SFL place Rangers, it’s hard to see any possible reason for their behaviour – except that affecting the vote is precisely what they intend. Whether their choice of club might actually be influenced by which of the two candidates (Dunfermline or Dundee) proves themselves more pliant, or whether – more likely – they simply want to leave that possibility hanging in the air, the position might give the SPL some possible traction over two clubs in what might be a very close vote.
It is to Dunfermline’s credit that, even while making clear their own belief that they should be Club 12, it has not stopped them from being one of the clubs to come out clearly against Rangers being in the first division. I have already commented on Dundee, above.
Remember them? Y’know, the ones whose misbehaviour kick-started this whole mess in the first place? Well, there’s much to be sorted out in that saga too. I’ve not been following their own internal politics all that closely, but as far as I gather, they now have an owner who none of the fans trust, they have almost no players signed, there are doubts about where their funding comes from and whether they have enough of it to get by through the coming season.
All of that is probably surmountable – where there’s a will and all that. But more seriously, they still have a raft of possible legal and disciplinary action hanging over them. The SFA Appellate Tribunal is still to have its re-hearing. True, the transfer embargo imposed orginally was held to be illegal, but there were still some suggestions that Rangers might agree to it as part of a compromise, so it might still have been an option. More serious options open to the Tribunal include suspension of their membership. This is in addition to any sanctions that might be applied following the investigation into alleged dual contracts.
But how are we to believe that any such action will be taken fairly and independently when the SFA’s own Chief Executive says he cannot conceive of Scottish football without Rangers? And more specifically, how are we to have any confidence in the process when the league set-up is being designed to help them back up into the SPL after a single season, and warning us of the consequences if they are not? If the transfer embargo were to be reapplied, Rangers would not looked well placed to win the first division with their current squad – they might even be relegated from it. How can we believe that the SFA will, fairly, consider discplinary options that might allow such an eventuality, given their current stance?
Furthermore, the liquidators are holding their own investigations into the murky politics of Rangers – and this time we probably can trust them to be independent. Which means anything might happen. As Raith expressed it in their most recent statement:
We are also concerned that there has not as yet been an opportunity for clubs to receive legal advice from the SFL and/or debate the potential consequences on the smooth running of our league in the event that the Courts are asked to annull/strike down any of the corporate transactions that have led to the current position of Sevco Scotland Ltd as owners of certain assets of the Rangers oldco. Indeed, the position as regards the potential sanctions to be applied by the Scottish FA via its Appellate Tribunal has also still to be bottomed out. In summary, we remain concerned that the SPL clubs have overwhelmingly voted to pass on this potential time bomb, which may yet explode once passed to the SFL’s jurisdiction, and we are being asked to accept this new company into membership, worse still in our top division.
All of these issues – and many others besides – need to be considered carefully by the time the SFL clubs case their votes on Friday. This has turned into a rather longer article than I intended, but this is a big moment for the Scottish game and there are important issues here. It may be a watershed moment for the game. On Friday, we’ll find out if the rank and file of Scottish football are content to rely on the obsession with the big two clubs and their TV contracts, and live off the crumbs dropped on the table. Or whether they aspire to something else.
Time will tell.
For a current breakdown of each club’s official position in advance of the vote – and contact details for all of them – see the campaign website at http://honestyinsport.weebly.com/
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