Scotland’s League Cup Semi-Finals: Doncaster’s Deceit?

by | Oct 4, 2018

So…when Scotland’s Football Association (SFA) drew across-the-board criticism for their disciplinary procedures, Scotland’s Professional Football League (SPFL), and its (too) long-time Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, clearly thought: “Hold my beer.”

The SPFL’s decision to stage the League (Betfred) Cup semi-finals (Aberdeen/Rangers, Hearts/Celtic) as a ‘double-header’ at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, was preposterous. As Barry Anderson wrote matter-of-factly in the Edinburgh Evening News immediately after the draw on 26th September: “The SPFL are looking at Murrayfield, given that staging both semis at Hampden on the same day would be unfeasible.” And when the SPFL found Murrayfield, their decision was a preposterous sham.

It is an indictment of fan-behaviour that football ‘double-headers’ have long been so inadvisable (they are commonplace, trouble-free Gaelic Games occasions, for instance). But that is football reality everywhere, especially when hefty local rivalries are involved. ‘Reality,’ though, remains an alien concept to Scotland’s professional football authorities.

Last year’s League Cup semis were a Hampden weekender. The SPFL arguably got this wrong too. Of the four semi-finalists, only Celtic played during the previous midweek, a Champions League defeat in Munich. Yet they had to play at Saturday lunchtime. In previous years, semi-finals involving ‘smaller’ teams (i.e. not Celtic or Rangers, whatever recent league tables may have said) were at grounds such as Hearts’ Tynecastle, Hibernian’s Easter Road (2014’s semi-final venues) and Motherwell’s Fir Park.

This year, however, four of Scotland’s best-supported sides are semi-finalists and Rangers avoided Celtic for the first time in six semi-final draws. This left only Sunday available for the semis, unless the SPFL asked Rangers or Celtic to play less than 48 hours after Europa League matches (Rangers hosting Spartak Moscow, Celtic in Leipzig).

It is important to note here that this fixture ‘situation’ was of the SPFL’s own making. European club competition schedules should have been factored into domestic fixture scheduling. The league would have known it was very possible for two Scottish clubs to be Europa League groupies. Celtic have been in seven of the last nine Europa Leagues. While Rangers chairman Dave King seemed certain of a spot long before they scraped into the qualifiers. And he NEVER lie…er…

Yet the SPFL still scheduled the League Cup semis that weekend, before a full Scottish Premiership (SPS) fixture list, including the Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. Indeed, they could only escape even limited responsibility/blame if SKY or BT Sport had somehow insisted on the league fixtures. And admitting that would expose the SPFL’s subservience to even the limited broadcast money available north-of-the-border.

The draw left only two Scottish grounds able to hold the expected attendances, the 51,866-capacity Hampden and Murrayfield, the 67,144-capacity Edinburgh home of Scottish Rugby Union. Murrayfield has football-staging experience. Hearts played European ties there from 2004-2007 as Tynecastle was deemed unfit for Uefa purposes. Celtic staged two Champions League qualifiers there in 2014 when Celtic Park was a Commonwealth Games venue. And last season, Hearts played three SPFL home games there while Tynecastle had work done. But it recently lost to Hampden in bidding to stage Scotland games after 2020.

Hearts boss Craig Levein is not always the sunniest-disposed of characters. But his initial reaction to the semi-final situation went against type. “We will play wherever we have to play. I didn’t know the circumstances until after the match. It won’t be a home tie for anybody so, does it matter if it’s at Murrayfield?” he noted.

Steven Gerrard is four months at Ibrox yet already steeped in the new Rangers tradition of crying “it’s no’ fair” at every opportunity. But, in fairness, he DID see the problems with Rangers OR Celtic playing on the Saturday: “It’s not fair on any team, having played on the Thursday night. We’ll deal with that when we have to,” he noted, before joking: “I’ll be interested to see how they decide. All the best with that.”

Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers has also cried “it’s no’ fair” a bit over-much during Celtic’s recent wretched run. But, after Celtic’s slightly better form gave them a semi-final to worry about, he stopped crying: “I think they will have to look at it now. It obviously presents a problem because there are midweek games the week after,” he noted, before joking: “I’ll let them sort that out.”

The morning after the draw, the SPFL issued a statement which smacked gobs everywhere. It stated that the draw itself “means Scotland’s two representatives in Europe will play their semi-final matches at Hampden on the same day.” because, SPFL Secretary Ian Blair revealed, “the SPFL is contractually obliged to bring both semi-finals to Hampden.”

He continued: “We’ve been working hard with Police Scotland (PS) and Hampden Park on contingency planning for exactly this scenario and, together, we examined every possible permutation.”  So, this hadn’t just dawned on them (“It is understood that, in such circumstances, the SPFL would move one of the cup dates,” Daily Telegraph newspaper Rangers-fan-in-residence Roddy Forsyth wrote a week earlier). Unless they thought “working hard on contingency planning” was a one-morning operation. It certainly resembled one soon enough.

Blair said PS “advised” that Aberdeen/Rangers “should be played first.” Because…er… As a result, Aberdeen/Rangers was set for noon, Hearts/Celtic at 7.45pm. He said “we met with…all four clubs earlier today and explained that this was the only feasible outcome.” And SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster stated, on-camera, that “we are pleased to have come to an arrangement that suits everyone.” But Blair revealed nothing of “all four clubs’” responses. It was very soon very apparent why, and equally soon equally apparent that Doncaster had lied.

Within hours, it was ‘statement o’clock’ at Aberdeen and Hearts. Both thoroughly refuting any notion that “arrangements” had “suited” them or that they had ever said so. Hearts owner Ann Budge immediately set fire to Doncaster’s “suits you (all)” theory. Hearts were “advised” that their tie “will” be played at 7.45. And “whatever options I may have expected, I was astonished…and I was not alone in that regard…to be informed that both games would be played on the same day at Hampden.”

She asked if “the SPFL would explore with Hampden the possibility of releasing us from the obligation…given the very special circumstances.” She reported “that a formal request” was later made “but that no release from our contractual obligations was possible.” She did not report why not. And she “made my feelings clear, on behalf of (Hearts), in person and in writing…that the planned schedule is not in the best interest of Scottish football, the club and certainly not the supporters.” But “following further conversations, I do not believe the plan can/will be changed.” 

Aberdeen expressed their “dismay,” recalling that they’d “repeatedly” asked the authorities to “stop giving us kick-off times which, for our large travelling support, are completely unacceptable.” They “appreciated” that the PS wanted “our game played first for operational reasons” and that “the authorities have a difficult job to schedule games.” They suggested that playing the semis “on consecutive weekends” was surely worth investigating,”

But they concluded that “to yet again ask our supporters to be in Glasgow for a noon start on a Sunday is, quite frankly, appalling.” Not least because, as BBC Scotland’s chief football reporter Chris McLaughlin noted: “The first train out of Aberdeen to Glasgow that Sunday arrives at 12:14,” before understating enormously: That’s not going to work.”

Doncaster’s on-camera explanations had all the coherence of a Mr. Blobby tribute act. It was, as per with him, everybody else’s fault. “It’s quite exceptional circumstances having two Ladbrokes Premiership clubs in the Europa League group stages which means we can’t go any earlier than the Sunday,” he opined, careful to mention the sponsors but not the inadvisability of scheduling semi-finals after a Europa League week when a third of Scotland’s top-flight were potential participants.

“We have been working very closely” with the four semi-finalists, he claimed. The games had to be at Hampden to be “manageable from the police and Hampden Park’s point of view,” which he was “assured” it was even without “direct conversations with the police. That has been handled by Iain Blair,” a namecheck I’m sure Blair appreciated.

The deal “inherited following the Scottish Premier League merger with the Scottish Football League in 2013” did not allow either semi to be moved unless advised by police because there was “a long list of games that have to be played at Hampden,” including Hearts/Aberdeen, apparently. Pesky leagues. Uefa rules allowed “only two free dates” for rescheduled games One for the league matches postponed on semi-finals’ day, the other for those postponed for the final. Thus, “we have absolutely no flexibility to lose games and reschedule them. I wish we did, but we don’t.” Pesky Uefa.

“We” understood that staggering the kick-offs (or “the staggering kick-offs,” either fits) would “create some inconvenience for supporters travelling,” it was “unfortunately the price we pay for having two teams in the Europa League group stages.” The SPFL was “working with ScotRail to see if any flexibility can be built into the public transport system.” Pesky teams. Pesky trains. Pesky everybody…else.

Doncaster’s stories soon disintegrated. The SPFL weren’t “working” with ScotRail at all. The train company tweeted that the SPFL were “well aware from previous events of the logistical challenges an early kick-off presents, particularly for Sunday morning services from Aberdeen,” but ScotRail’s The @SPFL is well aware from previous events of the logistical challenges an early kick-off presents, particularly for Sunday morning services from Aberdeen.The @SPFL is well aware from previous events of the logistical challenges an early kick-off presents, particularly for Sunday morning services from Aberdeen.“events team wasn’t consulted by the SPFL in advance of its announcement” and “has only now been in touch after the announcement.”

‘Craig Levein of the Diplomatic Service’ was already an historic concept. But his dismantling of Doncaster’s arguments was a controlled, simmering disbelief masterclass. “The craziest thing I’ve ever experienced in football,” said the man who once set Scotland up in a 4-6-0 formation. It was “madness“ and “absolute madness” which “defied logic” and was “possibly the worst decision.”

Doncaster’s “suits-all” spiel was “not true, we’ve told them it doesn’t suit us, Aberdeen have told them it doesn’t suit them. How does that suit Aberdeen?” He said: “If we take 25,000 tickets and only sell 15,000, this club will take no responsibility for that. That will fall fair and squarely back at the feet of Neil Doncaster and the SPFL. Because they made the decision which does not suit supporters” (more important in Scotland than England given Scotland’s paltry broadcast receipts).

Levein was bewildered by the SPFL’s contractual obligations to Hampden: “Who wrote that contract? Who signed that contract?”. And he asked why the SPFL “would tempt fate with so many things that could go wrong and tarnish the name of Scottish football,” notably “100,000 supporters of four different clubs in Glasgow” possibly “at the same time.” And a nail clutched its head and yelped when Levein said: “If they’re saying this is the best solution, they’ve not done their jobs properly.”

On September 28th, the SPFL published a website “Q&A” offering “additional information in response to enquiries on the arrangements” for the semis (more stupendous understatement). But in truth, there was little “additional” info. Asked why Aberdeen’s semi wasn’t at 7.45, the SPFL cited PS advice and didn’t say “why” at all. They noted, correctly, that switching Hearts/Celtic to the next weekend (when they were to meet in the league) would leave Celtic and Rangers “playing in separate stadia in Glasgow on the same day,” which PS “would not have supported.”

That this was a better scenario than both playing in the SAME stadia appeared not to concern, or dawn on, the SPFL…or the police, if Doncaster was to be believed. That it hadn’t happened since 1983 was widely reported as a reason for it not to happen now. But the idea that football fans’ behaviour is as bad now as it was then is not widely shared beyond PS’s disdainful view of football fans.

While the Q&A addressed the key “Q” (“could this have been avoided when SPFL fixtures were being drawn up in the summer?”), the SPFL blamed “European football, international commitments and other cup tournaments,” which were hardly new features, and “the recent re-introduction of the Premiership winter break,” which happened in 2016 so was hardly a surprise. Still, as Forsyth gleefully noted, “not everyone is unhappy.” His beloved Stevie G was “‘delighted’ that Rangers would be playing the first game. That’s alright, then.

But Doncaster always has more deception in him. On Monday, Doncaster’s claims of police support for the arrangements that suited “everyone” unravelled. Scottish Police Federation chief Calum Steele called the semi-final scheduling “just simply idiotic.” Asked about moving Hearts/Celtic to Murrayfield, (my emphasis) he said: “It would definitely be easier.” Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins thought it “sensible to discuss the issues raised” with “stakeholders,” and asked the SPFL “to look again at the transport plan so we can make a full public safety assessment.”

Et voila, Hampden waived the “legal obligation” to be awarded both semis (the Daily Record ‘newspaper’ seemed appalled at the SPFL paying compensation. The “secret pay-out” was “another layer of controversy,” they wrote, suggesting ignorance of contract basics, or sensationalist w*nk, you decide). An SPFL statement referenced “moving one of the semi-finals.” But Doncaster said Hampden’s epiphany “enabled us…to explore whether the match could be staged at an alternative venue” (my emphasis).

So, before the SPFL had even announced an extensive consultees list, let held a board meeting, a decision to move the Hearts/Celtic game appeared to have been made already. No wonder Celtic’s idea, “a simple ballot of which game went to which venue,” to give “all clubs…a 50-50 chance of playing at Hampden,” was rejected by the SPFL board.

“All we asked for was equity of treatment,” Celtic formally fumed. Broadcasters and police had “no preference whatsoever on which match should take place at each venue.” The SPFL board couldn’t “produce logic or reason for turning down our modest request” and “arbitrarily decided that a chosen game should stay at Hampden.” Thus, “the interests of our club and supporters have been subordinated to an SPFL Board “diktat.”

Rodgers was wrong to call Murrayfield “not neutral with Hearts having played part of their season there last year,” as Hampden is no more “neutral” given that Celtic play “part of” every season there. But he correctly felt that “it’s assumed that Celtic and Hearts should go to Murrayfield.”

And THAT’S the issue now. How, when and why was that decided? That Hearts/Celtic would be moved was universally assumed as soon as moving one semi became possible. Why, it seems pertinent to ask, was that assumption made? Although Scotland’s football media…well…you know…

The answer looks Doncaster-shaped. He lied, barefacedly, on-camera, about “an arrangement that suits everyone.” His organisation’s decision-making process is a sham. And he thought his lies would work. Enough to lose any job bar, apparently, US president, US Supreme Court judge and Scottish football chief.

SPFL clubs arguably have the leadership they deserve, having allowed so much Doncaster-shaped shoddy governance for so long. The League Cup stupidity should be a final straw. But it isn’t the first. And it won’t be the last.