Gordon Smith’s resignation this week, after nearly three years as Chief Executive at the Scottish Football Association, came initially as a surprise, though it seems rather less of one now that the idea has sunk in. Smith always seemed a man somewhat apart from the usual array of gruff-voiced men in suits who make up the Scottish football fraternity, and throughout his tenure he continued to show an idealism – some might say naivety – and a willingness to speak candidly even when it led him to say some daft things.
Unfortunately, his reign will probably be viewed largely as a failure in its most conspicuous aspects. He failed, first and foremost, to halt the slide of the national team and the appointment of George Burley did not work out; he also failed to get any of his grander visions past the planning stages – summer football, a pyramid system for the lower and non- leagues, and most of all his crusade to clean up the game using video evidence.
It would be easy to present this as being everyone else’s fault, with Smith as a lone crusader battling against inertia and vested interest. And maybe there’s something in it, but it would have to be admitted that it has at times been Smith’s own fault, that his cackhanded pursuit of his ideals has got him into difficulty.
This was most obviously the case with the Robbie Winters affair which came before the SFA Disciplinary Committee just last week. Winters was playing for Livingston in a third division match at East Stirlingshire in February and was the player (apparently) fouled when Shire’s Michael Bolochoweckyj received his second booking of the match. The referee was seemingly well-placed to see the incident but Gordon Smith, who happened to be at Ochilview that night and watching from the stand, believed that Winters had dived. The SFA themselves have given conflicting accounts as to what happened next – firstly saying the incident was referred by Smith himself on learning after the match that footage of it did exist, but then saying that Shire’s owner Spencer Fearn had indeed lodged a complaint – but either way it seems that it was largely at Smith’s instigation that Winters found himself before the beaks to answer a charge of simulation.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the incident, the committee accepted Livingston’s claim that the charge was procedurally invalid and the footage was not even considered, which left Smith looking a little foolish and Livingston chairman Gordon McDougall demanding an inquiry. Smith’s resignation this week may have been for “personal reasons” rather than any specific incident, but it seems likely that this most recent incident was instrumental in bringing matters to a head.
It was not, however, the first time he had found himself in difficulties over the same issue. Within a few months of taking over in 2007, he announced a plan to review video of all SPL matches and apply retrospective punishments for those considered to be diving or feigning injury. The plan had to be withdrawn almost immediately when FIFA denounced it as being against the laws of football.
Then there was the Allan McGregor / Barry Ferguson incident last year, when both players were banned from the national team. Smith’s attempts to speak openly to the media rather than hide behind carefully-worded PR were laudable, but ended in him making apparently conflicting statements that left everyone in some confusion as to whether the players had indeed been banned for life, or whether a new manager would be at liberty to select them.
As for grander long-term plans for the structure of Scottish football, it would be fair to say there’s been no progress at all over the last three years. We’re awaiting the McLeish Report, commissioned by the SFA from former First Minister (and East Fife footballer) Henry McLeish, which is to make recommendations on the future of the sport, and which may or may not provide some discussion points or some impetus for some of the changes Smith had envisaged. But evidently Smith felt he couldn’t wait around for that and has left someone else to deal with any repercussions it may have, and to try and drive through any changes it recommends. I’m sure he’d join me in wishing his successor the best of luck with that.
In the meantime, despite my use of the word “failure” above, thanks to Smith for his efforts, his heart is in the right place and he’s done his best, and I’m hopeful that in Craig Levein he has at least left the national team in good hands.
I was going to try and get through the article without mentioning the phrase “And Smith must score ….” but I can’t quite do it. Sorry Gordon.