The Scottish Professional Football League’s CEO, Neil Doncaster, is either stupid, or thinks everyone is. This is the logical conclusion to draw from the SPFL’s breath-taking decisions on the Scottish Championship’s fixtures for Saturday May 2nd. At first glance, Sky TV televising Hearts v Rangers and moving the game from Saturday to Sunday is nothing unusual. Two of Scotland’s biggest club names, one receiving the Championship trophy that day, the other central to the battle for play-off places. However, May 2nd was the last day of the regular Championship season. And with final league positions still potentially up for decision, all fixtures would normally kick-off simultaneously, so that no side has the small but not-insignificant advantage of “knowing what they have to do” in order to reach their day’s required outcome.
But here was where the SPFL’s “thinking” began to deviate from “normally.” Sky wanted to televise the Hearts game. The SPFL wanted the Hearts game televised. And because the SPFL’s need was greater, they wanted it televised whenever Sky wanted it televised. Ergo, Hearts v Rangers, Sunday May 3rd. Now in England, we are used to the final round of EPL and Football League Championship fixtures kicking off at the time chosen for any scheduled televised game. However, the SPFL did not change any other Scottish Championship kick-off time, leaving Rangers with the aforementioned small but not-insignificant advantage, i.e. “knowing what they have to do” to finish second in the Championship and gain home advantage in the play-offs. Cue outrage.
Rightly or wrongly, Rangers are somewhere between resented and hated by many Scottish football supporters, many of whom attributed this decision to the SPFL’s alleged desperation to see Rangers back in Scotland’s top-flight. The word “corruption” abounded on social media. Clubs were clearly not happy either. Leeann Dempster, the Chief Executive of Hibernian, currently Rangers’ main rivals for second place, issued a statement saying that “In previous seasons, the League has ensured that all of the final round fixtures are played at the same time” and that “I have reminded them in very clear terms that – as the organiser of the competition – the responsibility for protecting its unimpeachable sporting integrity lies with them.”
Hearts owner Ann Budge also issued a statement saying that “we did not think for one minute” that their game would be moved “especially given our belief that all Championship games would require to be played at the same time. She “objected (to the SPFL) in strong terms…on the grounds of it having a total disregard for the interests of supporters of both clubs and an apparent disregard for sporting integrity.” She noted that Police Scotland also had “strong reasons for objecting to the changed fixture.” She added that “it is protocol the football world over for fixtures such as the last day of the Championship to be played simultaneously” but warned that whilst “I will be sending in a formal complaint to the SPFL in relation to this appallingly late decision,” she had been “advised that this complaint will likely have no impact on the original decision.”
Rangers did not want any advantage either. Manager Stuart McCall said: “On the last day of the season every game should be played at the same time. I’d be annoyed if I was in Hibs’ position. I’d be happy to play on Saturday. We aren’t trying to gain an advantage.” And it was equally clear that the SPFL had made a fundamental error. Almost as bad an error as any fixture-organising body could make. Almost. On Wednesday evening they issued a statement in which Neil Doncaster began: “The Hearts v Rangers match is scheduled for Sunday 3 May to be broadcast on television and it is not clear to us why this has caused so much surprise.” Thirty words which could be summarised in four: “Why I should resign.”
Doncaster speaks fluent disingenuity, his language of choice whenever he tries to justify a decision. The idea that moving the Hearts game in itself “caused” any “surprise” was preposterous. Dempster’s statement directly referenced the real issue and presumably she was as “very clear” to the SPFL as she was in her statement. The real issue was not moving the Hearts game, which Doncaster correctly called “a key game in the Championship season” before more contentiously suggesting it “will inevitably attract huge interest from around the world.” It was the refusal to consider moving the division’s other games. Indeed, this was so clearly the issue that if I exceed my word count limit, these two sentences will go. And if it really wasn’t clear to Doncaster and the SPFL why their decision would cause any “surprise” – and more – then I cannot begin to understand their mindset. Yet there was more.
Doncaster claimed: “It is unreasonable to expect all Championship fixtures…to move to Sunday when a number of them will be unaffected.” The first point was fair in this specific case (see below). The second was an admission that “a number of” the Championship fixtures WOULD be affected by the Hearts game. Yet Doncaster accepted this, before passing the buck onto the clubs, who were “invited to submit a request should they wish to move games to the Sunday.” This was hours after Dempster had reminded the SPFL of its “responsibility for protecting its unimpeachable sporting integrity.” Yet here he was directly shirking that responsibility…and arguably ignoring SPFL rules, which state: “where reasonably practicable the Board shall consult with and shall take into account any representations made by participating Clubs before rescheduling” matches (emphasis added).
The next sentence demonstrated why expectations of a move to Sunday were unreasonable. “The only feedback we have received is from one Championship club, which has asked for its match to remain scheduled for the Saturday.” This was Falkirk, who were using their game as a charity launch in memory of ex-chairman Campbell Christie. Current chairman Doug Henderson said: “His family members have organised travel from all over the country. Preparations… have been in place for some time and it would be extremely disappointing and disrespectful if the launch had to be abandoned because of a date change.” But Henderson added, damningly, that “Fans would be inconvenienced at the last minute when this change was predictable several weeks ago and could have been dealt with then,” a consideration which Doncaster had not felt the need to address. And even Henderson – whose club Doncaster cited as support, remember – said: “In the interests of fairness, the end-of-season fixtures have traditionally been played concurrently on an agreed date. You can’t have one game kicking off when all the others have finished. That, in our opinion, is not in the spirit of the game. We must uphold the integrity of our football competitions at all costs.”
Doncaster wasn’t quite finished, though: “For the avoidance of doubt, we have had no request from Hibernian to move its fixture to the Sunday.” For the avoidance of doubt is on the same irony level as the “let me be clear” with which modern politicians herald their lapses into disingenuity. Doncaster specified Hibernian in an attempt to undermine the credibility of Dempster’s earlier statements. But these attempts were themselves undermined by two facts of which he should have been aware. It was not Hibernian’s fixture at all. They were away. And Sunday was not an option because they were away to…Falkirk. Doncaster seemed oblivious to the obvious solution, playing all games on Saturday. This, social media concluded with comparable speed and cynicism, was because SKY TV were dictating terms. And on Thursday morning, Doncaster’s Scottish FA counterpart, Stewart Regan, added weight to that theory by suggesting that the SPFL were trying to accommodate “the needs of…broadcasters,” who he tellingly called the “biggest funding partners.”
If this was designed to help Doncaster, it failed, as even Regan admitted preferring “having games finishing at the same time.” He also declared his faith in “Neil and his colleagues” producing a “pragmatic proposal.” But McCall had said that “TV controls a lot of things.” And the SPFL’s Thursday lunchtime statement rather confirmed this. Doncaster was unavailable for comment because he was “travelling.” So an SPFL spokesperson said: “Sky Sports has now suggested an alternative schedule for its televised Championship match that weekend” and “all five Championship matches that weekend will now kick-off simultaneously at 12.15pm on Saturday.”
Admittedly, everybody was by now looking for more metaphorical sticks with which to beat the SPFL and Doncaster. But it was all too easy. That SKY had “suggested the alternative schedule” implied that it hadn’t occurred to Doncaster. The SPFL thanked “Sky Sports for its flexibility and understanding” whilst offering no apology for their own role in necessitating it. And Doncaster’s travelling didn’t seem to take him beyond the confines of the SPFL’s Hampden Park HQ, from where he allegedly emerged that evening. As soon as they were aware of the possibility of the “alternative schedule”, Hearts issued a panicky plea “to strongly encourage supporters not to rearrange any plans they may have made” to attend the Rangers game. This was probably too late for many fans. But the SPFL didn’t thank ANY fans for THEIR “flexibility and understanding.”
Doncaster should not remain SPFL CEO after this shambles. He is answerable to, and technically a mere employee of, the SPFL board, who arrange the fixtures. However, he alone was responsible for his deplorable comments on Wednesday night. And the story isn’t over. On Thursday, Hibernian lambasted the SPFL for its actions and absolved SKY while Dempster justified their role in impressive and informative detail. They also called for an “urgent” review “of the governance of the SPFL…to ensure our league competitions are run professionally and with appropriate respect for all member clubs.” This resembled Falkirk chairman Donaldson’s call for a “fundamental review of fixture rearranging to suit television.” But that is a slightly different issue. Doncaster deserves criticism for much of his subservience to broadcast needs. And his broadcasting rights negotiations have been dismal failures.
Yet broadcasters are the SPFL’s “biggest funding partner” in the absence of a league sponsor (Doncaster’s area/fault again), if you don’t consider match-goers as “funding partners.” So Doncaster has to consider their wishes. However, his ignorance, whether real or feigned, of sporting integrity issues, his dismissal of genuine objections from Budge and Police Scotland and his abdication of responsibility for the decision to move only the Hearts game were all shameful. Scottish football fans will cite previous offences which fundamentally questioned his ability to govern Scottish professional club football. Each of this week’s mistakes individually raise the same questions. Taken together they should leave room for no question at all. And hopefully by the time you read this, Doncaster will be gone. If he isn’t, maybe enough people are stupid after all.
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