It’s been a fraught and sometimes farcical week in Scottish football, as the authorities in the SFA and SPL have been scrabbling desparately to find a solution to the Rangers problem, in the face of staunch supporter opposition that they seem not to have anticipated. It culminated in yesterday’s SPL meeting, at which Rangers were, as expected, denied their application to transfer their share to a new company. Thus, the buck has been passed to the Scottish Football League, and it’s now with them, at their meeting next Friday (13th July), to decide what happens to Rangers next.
But the buck comes with strict instructions from both the SPL and SFA on what they are expected to do with it, and this has created a good deal of anger and resentment within the lower leagues.
Mark has already covered yesterday’s events in the SPL in a separate article. There were some last minute doubts as to whether a vote would take place, but ultimately too many clubs had been too committal to be able to backtrack at this stage – or even to be seen to contemplate it – and thankfully the vote went ahead.
Those wondering what will happen next should be very clear what has led to the SPL’s decsion. There is little doubt that had the clubs themselves been left to the decision in the absence of any pressure from their own supporters, then Rangers would have been allowed to transfer their share. It is, unquestionably, those supporters who have brought us this far. Not just Rangers supporters, or those who have any preference between the big two – the overwhelming majority of fans throughout the game believe the rules should be applied as they would be to any other team. And by and large that seems to include Rangers fans, many of whom seem to agree that applying to division three would be the fairest outcome.
And this viewpoint, of course, is not confined to the top division. Yet despite having already underestimated the strength of feeling among Premier League fans, the same mistake seems to have been made a second time round at the next level. When the SPL clubs were first announcing their intentions to vote no, it was happening against a backdrop of behind the scenes talks between the governing bodies, at which a deal was being thrashed out for league reconstruction in return for accepting Rangers into the second tier. With this apparently being taken as a done deal, and Sky TV apparently promising the TV deal would be unaffected as long as Rangers were only missing from the top flight for a year, this looked like their best way of minimising the financial damage.
To be as fair as I can to the governing bodies, you can see how they might have thought it was a good idea. The SFA have been frustrated for some time at the difficulties they have encountered in their attempts to implement the McLeish report and reform the game, and here they spotted some leverage, a chance to bang some heads together and force through a deal. They might even have imagined themselves being congratulated on showing some leadership, for once.
Unfortunately for them it was a midjudgement, and it quickly became clear that lower league supporters were just as opposed to Rangers receiving special treatment. At least some of the reconstruction proposals had merit in their own right, but the haste with which they were prepared – combined with the explicit link to the proposal to allow Rangers to jump the queue – caused an immediate backlash. Indeed, a number of the clubs seemed to be thinking along the same lines themselves, and very quickly started issuing statements in opposition to any such deal.
At this point the SPL panicked, and started to increase the pressure, through a mixture of bribery and blackmail. The stakes were upped considerably at the end of last week, when a document making out a case for the proposals was sent to all the SFL clubs. It’s not clear who actually prepared this document, but whoever it was should be the first to lose his job – it’s a wretched piece of work: badly written, shoddily presented, full of figures plucked from nowhere, cheap threats, and one-sided arguments.
It outlines several possible scenarios, the first being that Rangers remain in the SPL. This is dismissed at once as “not an option” on the grounds that “SPL clubs have indicated no”. There’s no further discussion, or any analysis of the cost benefits that led them to the decision. Only for the further options does such “analysis” begin – and here there is consideration only for the TV and sponsorship money that would be lost. There is little or no mention of any of the kind of alternate considerations that led the SPL clubs to their own decisions, no suggestion of any balance or attempt to discuss the complexities. The conclusion it comes to is clear: those same clubs in the top league who realised that they could not afford – in any sense of the word – to alienate their own support are now insisting that the lower league clubs take precisely that hit in order to bail the SPL out.
Unsurprisingly, this document seems to have got peoples’ backs up. Lower league clubs such as Stranraer, East Fife and Clyde followed after second tier clubs such as Morton, Raith and Dunfermline in expressing definite opposition to the plans.
On Tuesday this week, the SFL held a general meeting to discuss the proposals, and were addressed by both Neil Doncaster and Stewart Regan – Chief Executives of the SPL and SFA respectively. Clyde, who last week issued one of the more articulate statements of opposition to the deal, have also issued an account of this meeting, and it’s clear that Doncaster is still trying to play hardball despite the weakness of his position, and threatening to impose an ‘SPL2’ if they don’t get the vote they want. (The SFL is in a strong enough position to call his bluff here. Several of the most vocal critics have been second flight clubs, it seems even less conceivable that they would be railroaded into agreeing to the same solution but by an even more divisive method.)
While no vote was held, it does not seem that many in the SFL are yet convinced. Although some clubs are yet to make any public comment, it seems likely that if the vote were held today, Rangers would be in the third division. There will, however, be much effort made to change this before the vote, and the result could yet be in doubt. Expect to see many scare stories over the next few days about the financial disasters facing the game. And while some clubs have made an outright rejection of any proposal linked to the Rangers issue, others seem to have left themselves a little wriggle room, should a better set of proposals emerge.
It is this that the SFA will try to latch on to as they attempt to broker a deal. Regan gave an interview yesterday in which he indicated as much, and insisted that placing Rangers outside the top two divisions is not an option.
However, Regan shot himself in the foot in the same interview with some extraordinary comments about how much we need Rangers, and talking of “social unrest” should they be lost to the game. Although he has clarified this morning that he was referring to a situation where they were not let into the leagues at all, the damage has been done, and the game given away. The SFA – as most of us have long known – are entirely fixated on the Old Firm, unable to conceive of Scottish football without them, and thus unable to perceive the opportunity we currently have to foster and to generate interest in the game away from the Glasgow two, even as they are being presented with the evidence of how badly the game has been served by the increasing obsession with them and them alone.
If indeed it is true that the financial future of the Scottish game is so dependent on Rangers being allowed into the first division, then the system is unsustainable. The knok-on effects of the Rangers collapse are not just a freak piece of bad luck, which we have to accept as we paper over the cracks – it’s a systemic problem that needs to be tackled, whatever short-term difficulties that creates. As Clyde put it in their statement last week
If things are as bad as indicated then Scottish Football is in a far worse state than is being acknowledged. In which case it is time to accept the bankrupt model needs fixed and not supported and perpetuated on the back of this proposal. The fact that other clubs might face similar financial distress because Rangers Football Club enter the Third Division is hardly a reason to compromise the integrity of the SFL and further compromise Rangers Football Club.
While I think the level of threats, and talk of “armageddon” has been exaggerated, I’ve no doubt that Regan is right that there will be serious financial repercussions to Rangers being placed in division three, and those repercussions will filter down the leagues. I don’t doubt there will be short-term difficulties for the game. But selling the sport down the river to cover those difficulties will be far more damaging in the long run.
We have seen signs of supporters rallying round those clubs who have taken a firm stand. The effects of this are not always immediate and tangible. Any sums raised are unlikely to cover – in the first instance – the immediate shortfall across the Scottish game should the doomsday scenario occur and satellite companies pull out altogether. But although such signs of support are more difficult to quantify and the benefits they generate are longer term, that does not make them less valuable – far from it. It is these fans on which the game will depend for many years to come, and they must not be sacrificed for a short-term fix.
I’m well aware, of course, of the need to balance the books. I’m also well aware, from my own business experience, how easy it is for those without that responsibility to shout off about what the company should or shouldn’t be doing.
But one of the first and sharpest lessons I learnt in business was not to presume on the loyalty of your regular customers. It’s a lesson that football has sometimes been slower to learn than other industries, but the SPL have just been reminded of it, and they must accept that the same applies to the game as a whole.
A little story for you: a decade or so ago I had a couple of conversations with Kris Stewart, who was at that time Chairman of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association. Wimbledon FC, as they were then, were going through the mill and Kris was fulminating (quite reasonably) about everything the club’s owners and the football authorities were doing wrong. While largely agreeing with him, I did put some of the same points to him as I’ve heard applied to Scottish football this week: that it was all very easy for him to make demands from the sidelines, without being the one to have the responsibility of dealing with the financial consequences. I think I said something along the lines of – “You’ve got no idea of the financial realities of trying to run a football club”.
A year or two down the line Kris, as Chairman of the reformed AFC Wimbledon, was proving me wrong in the most spectacular fashion possible. He was well aware of the financial realities of running the club, and was doing so considerably better than Wimbledon’s previous owners.
And the reason that AFC Wimbledon has been such a conspicuous success story is because pretty well everyone within the game – and certainly the supporters – could see that the Wimbledon fans were the ones with right on their side. They were the ones who were correctly upholding the proper traditions of the sport, and they turned out in numbers and have stuck with it. When supporters see the right thing being done, we can and will respond to it.
In Scotland, the recognition of the strength of supporters acting together has been slower to come, but this summer has been a watershed. They – that is, we – have forced changes of opinion in some clubs, and reinforced the opinion of others. We must continue to make our feelings known over the next few days.
And then, next week, the future of the Scottish game will rest in the hands of the SFL Chairmen. I believe they all know what would be the right thing to do. I hope they have the courage of their convictions to see that it is done.
(Update: Stenhousemuir have, this evening, broken cover and become the first club publically to support Rangers being entered directly into the first division. It remains to be seen what reaction this will produce, and whether it alter the landscape and prompt any other clubs to follow suit.)
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