For Some, Relegation Rumbles On

by | Jul 1, 2020

Much of English and Scottish league football’s 2019/20 finished ages ago. But certain clubs seem reluctant to let it go. Some with better reason than others…

It says everything about Macclesfield Town’s miserable season that the happiest conceivable ending in the circumstances was to avoid relegation from the English Football League’s bottom-tier, League Two, by the narrowest conceivable margin, thanks to an EFL Independent Arbitration Panel (IAP) ruling which could not have been specifically designed better if he league actively wanted Macclesfield to avoid relegation.

On 19th June, Macclesfield were deducted two points for the latest of many EFL rule breaches concerning the late payment of player and staff salaries. Had they been deducted three, they would have been relegated from the pages of the Football League Paper (out every Sunday, £1.50) into the pages of the Non-League Football Paper (out every Sunday, £1.50). Instead, Stevenage, by far League Two’s worst team on the pitch, were relegated. And for the same reasons as Macclesfield were delighted with the decision, Stevenage and their outspoken chairman Phil Wallace were not.

The Silkmen’s tale of 2019/20 points deductions could be a poser in a particularly tricky arithmetic exam paper. If a ten-point deduction, with four suspended, was applied in December and reduced on appeal to a seven-point deduction, with three suspended, in March, with four deducted with immediate effect and a seven-point deduction applied in May, which, the BBC “clarified,” included “the suspended three points from the first case being applied to the second punishment,” before two points were deducted in June, with four suspended until the twelfth of never, and that’s a long, long time, then how many apples will Johnny have?

The 13 point deduction over the season was especially lucky for the Macc lads, as a further one-point deduction would have relegated them in Stevenage’s stead. But while Macc may be out of the relegation woods, the EFL have put them in a financial jungle instead. Macc were fined £20,000 (for regular inabilities to pay such sums, remember), ordered to pay the legal costs of the June hearing, AND to deliver a “professionally prepared business plan to the EFL, seeking to demonstrate sustainable financial resources and management to be put in place for next season and beyond” by 31st July.

Someone at the EFL appears to have a dark sense of financial irony. Or they were simply taking the p*ss, of which there was arguably an element in Macc’s official announcement of the IAP “outcome,” where they expressed their “gratitude to the (IAP) for their unquestionable diligence, in reaching what we deem to be a fair and unbiased conclusion.” You bet they were ‘grateful.’

Wallace was, understandably, not so grateful. Declaring that he had “lost all the sleep I am going to lose over a forced, artificial relegation,” he told the Stevenage website that he would “look closely” at the IAP decision “with our legal advisors when we see the reasons,” a process which will likely lose him more sleep. “We will continue to fight,” he insisted, “but if we are relegated by artificial means, then it won’t be for the want of trying to ensure fair play and sporting integrity.”

In fairness, he had been banging on about sporting integrity since the EFL announced their “recommended framework” for curtailing the League Two season early, if its clubs so decided. This maintained promotion and relegation, which would be decided on the “points-per-game” (PPG) basis which has gone down so well in Scotland. Wallace saw no “integrity in arbitrarily forcing relegation on any club that has every reasonable chance of avoiding it by playing but is denied the opportunity to do so.”

And his point was only fractionally undermined by his sprawling definition of “reasonable chance of avoiding” relegation, given that Stevenage were eight points clear at the bottom of League Two, with ten games left, when it was suspended in mid-March, having won only 22 in their first 36 games.

He was particularly peeved at the decision to stage promotion play-offs, thus “allowing teams to play to win promotion, but not allowing teams in the same league to play to avoid relegation.” This overlooked the obligation to Sky Sports to stage the play-offs. But he was on stronger ground in accusing the EFL board of “ignoring the overwhelming (indicative) vote by League Two clubs that told them they didn’t want” relegation.” But four clubs voted against and the EFL blocked the idea. Some cited the “hypocrisy” of promoting but not relegating while others feared that the EPL might use it to push for their long-perceived desire for a closed top-flight.

And the EFL clearly had the latter in mind when they stated that “the principle of relegation across all three divisions is integral to the integrity of the pyramid, from the Premier League down to the National League.” But at the same time, they also highlighted a problem WITH relegation in the current circumstances, the need for “assurances that the National League will start” next season, giving the relegated club “somewhere to play.”

Alongside his insistence that the relegation proposals had “absolutely no integrity,” Wallace was honest enough to admit that “we of course have a self-interest to declare” and was understating furiously when he described three league wins all season as “an element of culpability” for their predicament. But “we have always been strongly in favour of a resolution that is ethical and fair and is consistent with sporting values and principles.”

PPG does technically fit that criteria. But Wallace’s “ethical and fair” solution has consistently been to extend League Two to 25 clubs next season by adding the National League’s applicants for promotion. That, of course, is another tale, as Barrow only led the National League by four points when it was suspended. And the idea of a 25-club and therefore presumably a 48-game League Two season, when 2020/21 looks likely to start late and behind-closed-doors, doesn’t seem well thought-through.

For Macclesfield, it is a happy-ish ending. In the midst of the IAB furore, the tax authority’s winding-up petition against the club re-emerged. The petition was adjourned at the High Court, for the, ulp, ELEVENTH time, until 9th September, with the Silkmen still reportedly owing £72,000 in tax. If Stevenage’s story isn’t over, then Macclesfield’s certainly isn’t.

Scottish club football’s ability to recognise a workable solution to a complex problem has always been in doubt. But throughout this readjusted close season, a workable solution to the problems caused by the coronavirus was clearly visible from the Scottish Professional Football League’s (SPFL) proverbial ivory towers. Until Heart of Midlothian and Partick Thistle said “see you in court.”

The SPFL’s decision-making democracy has long-been criticised internally and externally. During 11 years as Chief Executive of Scottish club football’s top league, Neil Doncaster has bemoaned and championed the process whereby its member clubs have one vote each in ballots over major changes. And it is now being challenged in Scotland’s Court of Session, in Edinburgh, the equivalent of England’s High Court in London.

The events which led us here seem to form the basis of the clubs’ legal case, although Scottish football media reporting has been of chocolate-teapot use in determining this. Hearts, Partick and Stranraer were relegated as a result of SPFL clubs’ acceptance of an SPFL board motion to curtail 2019/20. Hearts were especially strident opponents of linking the curtailment to the early/advance payment of end-of-season prize money which many clubs urgently needed. These payments were based on, and thus required, final league standings, which were decided on the above-mentioned PPG basis and which, in turn, decided titles, promotions and relegations.

A Rangers motion proposed loans to needy clubs, which they argued nonsensically were the same as the advances, thus rendering their motion legally “incompetent.” The passage of the board’s motion brought claims from the vote losers of over-zealous campaigning by certain vote winners. And this, and the vital but hugely suspiciously late change of Dundee’s opposition to support, led to Rangers calling for an independent investigation into various perceived SPFL board malpractices.

Clubs voted by a two-to-one majority against Rangers’ call. But Hearts still hoped to push through league reconstruction specifically (and temporarily, if required) to avoid the drop. Alas, owner Ann Budge, mislaid her copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And after all reconstruction proposals failed to get close to sufficient support, Hearts decided that their best course of action was court action, while lambasting clubs that “failed” to support them.

Stranraer stated publicly in April that they could nowhere near afford legal action. Partick couldn’t, until a mystery benefactor agreed to cover their costs. Thus two SPFL clubs are now using the courts to try to reverse votes they lost. Their moral case is clear, neither were remotely relegation certainties. But their legal case isn’t. There may even be problems with involving courts; Uefa have had dim views of past such actions. Time is short too. Scotland’s Premiership starts on 1st August and most Premiership clubs have now returned to full training, with only Hamilton starting in July rather than June. Hearts, currently, are not a Premiership club and can’t train.

But Hearts and Partick may have been encouraged by France’s top-flight, which was curtailed on 30th April, two days after the government banned sport until September. Clear leaders Paris St-Germain became champions. But other clubs opposed placings being awarded via PPG. Lyon lost their European spot. And they and the relegated Toulouse and Amiens petitioned for relegation to be scrapped, despite Toulouse being bottom by kilometres. And French legal authorities ruled that the season could end early if the league “re-examined” its divisional structure.

Briefly, it looked as if the top-flight could be expanded by two promoted clubs, which was what Hearts seemed to offer with their 14-team top-flight proposals. However, last Friday, after the afore-mentioned structural re-examination, France’s 20 top-flight clubs (stop me if you’ve heard this before) voted to relegate Toulouse and Amiens.

Hearts now want to scrap ALL inter-divisional swaps. The court petition “primarily” sought “to reduce the unfair resolution insofar as it changed the SPFL’s rules on promotion and relegation.” And if the court didn’t grant that “remedy,” they would seek “compensation relative to the significant financial loss which the unfair relegations will visit upon us,” reportedly £8m to Hearts and £2m to Partick.

But Scotland’s football media pack had already convicted the SPFL before any legal case emerged. And the Guardian newspaper’s Ewan Murray and BBC Chief Sportswriter Tom English led the way.

Murray claimed that, despite the clubs own (compensation) claims, Partick were “by far the biggest victims,” although this smelled like an attempt to hide the fact that he is a Hearts fan. Thereafter, he descended into irrelevance.

Celtic’s title is unthreatened by the court action. But Murray still felt the need to write that it’s “wider resonance is questionable.” He noted that SPFL Chief Executive, Neil Doncaster’s £400,000-a-year; salary is “more than every player at 40 of 42 clubs.” Criticism of Budge was “Scottish football” not much liking “a female self-made multi-millionaire putting stake in the game, working without salary for six years and trying to highlight failing systems.” While “football fans who won’t recognise the gross unfairness of Thistle’s situation are not worthy of the label.” But the clubs’ legal case? Not even mentioned, let alone analysed.

English noted that because Thistle were relegated, “people will be out of work.” Of course, had they won seven league games all season, instead of six, those people would be in work. But neither he nor Murray cared to even admit that the clubs HAD parts in their own downfalls, let alone examine them.

And English was not enamoured with Ross County chairman Roy MacGregor suggestion that Hearts “take their medicine.” Citing County’s sub-Hearts form going into lockdown, he asked if MacGregor would “be practising what he’s now preaching about taking his medicine or would he be highlighting a wrong and calling for support,” if they had “dropped to 12th and were then robbed of a chance to rescue themselves because of the pandemic?”

This begged the same question of Budge if Hearts weren’t in a relegation spot going into lockdown. Budge seems quite happy to deny Dundee United promotion despite them topping the Championship by 14 points and do likewise to 13-points clear Cove Rangers in League Two. Nobody knows how she’d react. Certainly not English.

The clubs must establish an entirely different set of circumstances in court, which English and Murray completely overlooked. They have to show that the SPFL broke rules, exceeded powers and/or openly lied to and wilfully misled clubs. And, even then, as I know from personal experience, courts can rule unexpectedly.

I was a member of a trade union National Executive Committee (NEC) which voted to hold an election for its General Secretary, despite union rules stating that such elections were only held when there was a vacancy, which there wasn’t when we voted. The matter went to court. And they ruled that the NEC had the authority to breach the rule, as it was the union’s governing body in-between meetings of its actual governing body, delegate conference. “Who rules” mattered more than “how.”

That was English law. And whether Scottish law is different enough for Hearts and Partick remains unclear. The first hearing is set for 2nd July. It may not be the last.

And so relegation rumbles on.