Rangers’ Row About Nine-In-A-Row
On Monday, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) board made the long-inevitable decisions to end its Premiership season and award clear leaders Celtic their ninth title in-a-row.
The title was earned on the pitch, as second-placed Rangers were 13 points behind with nine games left, having entered 2020 two points behind Celtic, with a home game against St Johnstone in hand. Sadly, for them and Scottish football, Rangers fought harder OFF the pitch than on it in 2020 to stop Celtic winning the title.
Last Tuesday, the SPFL’s 42 clubs rejected Rangers’ call for an independent inquiry into the league’s conduct of last month’s vote to end its lower-divisions’ season early. The vote was 27-13, with two abstentions, thus allowing Scottish football to move forward…ha…no…it’s Scottish football…Rangers lost…this shit could go on for EVER.
Five days earlier, Rangers sent a long-promised “dossier of evidence” of purported SPFL executive malfeasance to the clubs. But it lacked the actual stand-up-in-court ‘evidence’ to persuade even a third of the SPFL to back an inquiry. Nevertheless, Rangers interim chairman, Douglas Park, promised that “this episode is far from finished.” Great.
Many people were dischuffed. “Scottish football is stuck up its own backside” was briefly the headline above BBC Scotland chief sportswriter Tom English’s summary of the saga. And he knew, having spent much of it writing from a similar position (see below).
By 15th April, the clubs had voted in (just) sufficiently overwhelming numbers to pass an SPFL board resolution to end its non-Premiership season early and let the board end the Premiership season early if the slimming prospects of completing it slimmed to zero. However, Rangers disagreed with Celtic being declared champions. And it is hard to see any other motivation for their more crackpot behaviour over the last month-and-a-week.
That said, the process was hugely rushed, with clubs asked to vote within 48 hours of receiving the resolution and none-to-brief ‘briefing’ notes. And the intricacies of SPFL democracy meant that the resolution would have fallen had Dundee voted ‘no.’ This they did, 12 minutes before the ‘deadline.’ But said vote (handily) get ‘lost’ in the SPFL’s topically-entitled “email quarantine system.”
The SPFL declared ‘provisional’ results, without Dundee’s vote, which Dundee then decided to rescind. Five days later, they voted “yes,” the resolution passed, and its provisions were enacted on 17th April, advancing “end-of-season fee payments” (prize money) to all non-Premiership clubs. Unsurprisingly, a number of issues irked clubs ‘relegated’ under the proposals. Plus Rangers, whose counter-resolution was deemed ‘incompetent’ because it instructed SPFL directors to act against the interests of the league/company.
Rangers thus began ‘stridently’ campaigning for an independent inquiry, citing a ‘whistleblower’ whose “dossier of evidence” raised “serious concerns surrounding the vote’s “stewardship.” Rangers declared, un-necessarily, that they wouldn’t be “bullied into silence” and called for SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster and legal counsel Rod McKenzie’s suspension. Meanwhile, Scotland’s football media accepted Rangers’ ‘evidence’ sight unseen, additionally pushing for Rangers’ demand that the Premiership (though not the other divisions, tellingly) be declared “null-and-void.”
On April 24th, the SPFL published the findings of a “comprehensive independent investigation into the factual chronology” re Dundee’s vote. “Audit services” provider Deloitte had been “appointed by SPFL independent non-executive directors…to carry out this review…to ensure complete probity and independence.” A less-than-comprehensive report concluded: “Examination of phone records, mobile communications and email data identified no evidence of improper behaviour by SPFL personnel.” But it was widely dismissed, with Rangers “alarmed” that it failed “to examine wider fundamental issues.”
That day, Rangers, Hearts and Stranraer formally called for a special general meeting to approve the independent inquiry, identifying seven issues the resolution briefing notes; declaring results before all votes were in; letting Dundee ‘vote’ twice; the “appropriateness” of SPFL contact with Uefa on curtailing the season; disclosure to clubs of other clubs’ votes; SPFL board statutory compliance; and “any other matters” thought “relevant” by an “independent expert.” And Rangers stated that it was “always” their “intention to produce” their dossier “well in advance of a general meeting.”
At their 27th April board meeting, the SPFL fixed that general meeting (EGM) for 12th May. And directors then wrote to clubs, admitting that not everything was “done perfectly” but stating that they were “unaware of any impropriety or disregard for appropriate qualities of corporate governance.” And they railed against “further recrimination and division” after their “professionalism, integrity and compliance with legal duties to the company” was “openly called into question.”
Rangers’ particularly targeted Doncaster, which was contemptible ingratitude for his efforts to shoehorn a new Rangers into Scottish football’s top-flight in 2012, after the old one went pop. And he perhaps had this in mind on 29th April, when he called the “rumour, innuendo, vague allegations” against he and MacKenzie “simply unacceptable” as it placed “an absolutely intolerable strain on people simply trying to do their job to the best of their ability for the benefit of all clubs.” And he queried (correctly) “whether any investigation will ever satisfy some people.”
MacLennan then published a ball-by-ball justification of SPFL actions. Answering Rangers’ reports of bullying and coercion, he said he saw “nothing wrong whatsoever with Board members seeking to persuade clubs to ‘adopt’ a resolution that the vast majority of Board members consider to be in the best interests of the League.”
On declaring the vote ‘result’ early, he asked people to “imagine the furore if we’d refused to give any update. We would have been accused of unwarranted secrecy. There is no (legal) prohibition on the Board providing (such) information. (It) was, after all, reporting…on its directors written resolution.” And while admitting that “we should not have urged clubs” to vote so hurriedly, “every club” was “told in writing that it could take 28 days to respond, to agree or otherwise.”
But he majored on Rangers’ “deeply flawed suggestion about issuing loans” to clubs, which was “never a realistic or timely solution,” as each applicant “would be subject to a due diligence examination of its ability to repay (and) the viability of (the) security being offered.” And he expressed especial disappointment at witnessing “clubs with a very specific agenda criticising us for acting in the best interests of the game.”
MacLennan’s claims were dismissed. English suggested that “the more the SPFL says there’s nothing to see, the more you wonder why it is going to such lengths to close down…an independent inquiry.” And he found it “curious” that MacLennan, “chairman of the SPFL for three years” without doing “a single interview with a journalist” was “suddenly banging out statements.” But, to quote MacLennan, “imagine the furore” if they’d said nothing in response to three weeks of unrelenting criticism..
English did acknowledge that “if (Rangers) don’t have compelling evidence, then they’re going to embarrass themselves.” Yet he embarrassed himself too. Interviewed by English, on 18th April, Hearts chair Ann Budge contradicted the SPFL claim that they could only advance prize money based on final league standings. “I’ve sat on the SPFL board and I’ve approved a loan for another club,” she insisted.
MacLennan had patiently explained that loans were NOT advances. But English based another article on this error, quoting numerous SPFL annual accounts references to…er…advances, forcing the SPFL to issue a despairing sigh in statement-form beginning: “Regrettably, we have to correct Ann Budge’s statement in the article by Tom English…the confusion is unfortunate, but the facts are clear.”
In “Accountancy for Dummies” mode, it explained that two “advance fee payments” made in 2016, “were subject to VAT, loans are not. These advances were invoiced, loans are not. Loans, by their very definition, have to be repaid, these advances did not” (still, why would Rangers-backers consider tax implications?). And the SPFL added: “Directors must be sure…clubs have the ability to repay.” Doing that “42 times in a short timescale” was “impossible. And, being frank, it is impossible to see how the Board could have satisfied itself that all 42 clubs would have been a good credit risk.”
This was echoed by Doncaster on BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Sportsound’ show on 2nd May. The bulk of a lengthy interview consisted of interviewer Richard Gordon VERY gradually grasping the issue, before Doncaster speculated on the nature of Rangers’ allegations against he and MacKenzie. “I’ve got no idea,” he began, many would say correctly. “But you don’t call for a chief executive and chief legal adviser to be suspended unless you have something pretty powerful. I’m entirely mystified by what it is (we) are alleged to have done wrong.”
However, he body-swerved Gordon’s suggestion that he had “nothing to fear from an independent inquiry” or from letting “everything play out in the open.” He called Deloitte’s work “an independent inquiry already.” And when asked why they didn’t investigate “bullying and coercion” allegations, he stated that “if people believe that they’ve been bullied by me, Rod or any SPFL staff, they have a duty to come forward.”
And while confirming that all broadcast money “has been received this season,” he was coyer about money going “back to broadcasters” if the season wasn’t completed, refusing “to comment on the individual deals” and adding, incorrectly: “I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to.” The league “will have to have some frank conversations with all of our partners as will clubs,” he concluded.
The saga was now descending into what Fred Durst of once-popular beat combo Limp Bizkit, poetically called “that he said she said b*llshit,” which only ended when Rangers’ 19-page dossier with seven lengthy appendices eventually appeared on 7th May. Rangers fans hailed it as a platoons-worth of smoking guns. Many others piss*d themselves laughing. The truth as ever was somewhere, though not halfway, between the two.
An SPFL spokesman preciously that “an initial examination of their ‘dossier’ has failed to identify a single shred of evidence to support Rangers’ vociferous claims of corruption, bullying and coercion by SPFL staff. If Rangers have any good reason for Neil Doncaster and Rod McKenzie to be suspended, we have yet to see it.” But Rangers’ list of grievances was not entirely unidentifiable.
They believed there was “material information not disclosed to clubs” on the resolution’s impact upon broadcast revenue, as “potential liabilities of up to £10m could be due.” The SPFL cited this only as a consequence of nulling-and-voiding the season. As these were identical impacts on games broadcast, potential labilities should have been clear to clubs. But the SPFL board should have told them.
Rangers claimed that Doncaster and McKenzie “seemed determined to follow their own agenda and showed no appetite for exploring alternative options.” They didn’t specify this “agenda.” But Rangers-minded folk believe the whole saga has been designed to give Celtic the title. The report shows “no appetite” for offering alternative motivations.
They accused Doncaster of excluding “significant material information from the briefing papers to clubs.” And Rangers’ counsel counselled that this was “material misrepresentation by omission.” League restructuring needed broadcasters’ “consent.” And a “significant difficulty” in obtaining this was not “disclosed” to clubs. Again, restructuring’s impact upon broadcast deals should have been clear to clubs. And the SPFL board should have told them.
They then blame instances of poor governance on Doncaster; including sending out the briefing paper “without board approval;” misleading clubs over the voting deadline; fifteen “unapproved” sets of SPFL board minutes. And Rangers being among the last clubs to know that their resolution was “incompetent,” thus denying them the time to become “competent.”
They acknowledge that “much of the information” about the Dundee vote “has been made public,” but still want chapter-and-verse on the “number of conversations” MacLennan admitted to having with Dundee between the “two” Dundee votes.
The bullying allegations were against Dunfermline chairman Ross McArthur and Alloa chairman Mike Mulraney, who allegedly “threatened” Dundee and Inverness Caledonian Thistle with detrimental financial consequences if they opposed the resolution. These “threats” were disclosed to Doncaster, who didn’t disclose them further.
Park sniffed at receiving four “cease and desist” letters from McKenzie on 10th April, with McKenzie asking “can we not simply resolve this by a confirmation that such an allegation will not be repeated in connection with these events and that the suggested course of action will not be proceeded with?” Apart from using a preposition to end a sentence with, it isn’t explained why this “behaviour of SPFL legal advisor” was an issue. And Park would know why McKenzie was “compelled” to “issue this request” four times. Wouldn’t he?
And, finally, Rangers objected to Uefa being told, before the vote, that “the vast majority of SPFL clubs” wanted the season “curtailed.” Rangers believe this was a “materially misrepresentation…to induce Uefa to approve a premature end.” And they said “several clubs” had “additional information” on this. They also found it “worth noting” that the Scottish Cup was not being “curtailed.” That there are only three games left in the Cup, not the 49 left in the league, was seemingly not “worth noting.”
English called the dossier neither “howitzer” nor “popgun” and abandoned his previous insistence that Rangers needed to produce “compelling evidence of wrongdoing,” to avoid embarrassment. He correctly said Rangers “raised a huge amount of questions.” But that was neither a dictionary definition of “evidence” nor the promised evidence of conduct worthy of suspensions.
He added: “Rangers’ narrative paints Doncaster and much of his executive as single-mindedly determined to get a yes vote,” portraying him “as a man who is going to do whatever he needs to do to get the result he wanted.” English intended this to sound damning. But it arguably sounded like the sort of leader Scottish football needs…and for whom Scotland’s football media would campaign if said leader was Rangers-minded.
The SPFL’s bullish response accused Rangers of “a lamentable lack of understanding of the current reality of Scottish football” and claimed that Park “made a very serious allegation and threat to act in a particular way” to Doncaster, an allegation “entirely unsupported by any evidence, either then or since.” Park, meanwhile, expressed willingness “to fund” any “investigation covering the scope outlined in our resolution,” thereby compromising said independence. He’s had a long month. And his money didn’t talk to two-thirds of the clubs.
Others were called to the Rangers cause, including renowned governance expert Steven bloody Gerrard, whose suggestion that there was “an almighty rush” to finish the Scottish season overlooked the fact that the SPFL board had proposed to keep the Premiership alive as long as practical. With such advocacy, it was perhaps little wonder that the media campaigns for the independent inquiry and nulling-and-voiding the season both failed.
Two examples, book-ending the saga, exposed particular media failings. On 10th April, Keith Jackson, wrote in the Daily Record ‘newspaper’ of “an angry standoff between Celtic and Rangers.” And on 11th May, the Guardian’s Ewan Murray wrote (in an article headlined “Rancour in the ranks,” presumably by a mischievous sub-editor with Roy Hodgson’s voice in his/her head) of “an Old Firm battleground.” Yet Celtic had said…absolutely nothing throughout that month. Jackson and Murray’s “standoff” and “battleground” were fabrications.
Meanwhile, lost in the bolox were two pure facts. First, Dundee’s vote-quarantine needs established. There must be, excuse my techno-illiteracy, the electronic equivalent of a paper trail. And football has to be satisfied that such a key vote going missing was co-incidence not “co-incidence.” Because more than just cynics suspect the latter. And, second, the SPFL board’s resolution was actually a good one, especially if moves to negate any impact on clubs ‘relegated’ by the proposals succeed. The rest was just (Ibrox) noise and Scotland’s football media pack crying “wolf.”
A wise man called “Auldheid” wrote recently, on the ‘Scottish Football Monitor’ website that “the media” and others “are cherry-picking their poor governance. That is poor governance in itself.”
English has been the prime cherry-picker. In his post-vote article, he detailed Celtic’s 2017 call for an “independent inquiry” into the Scottish FA’s handling of Rangers’ 2012 liquidation and attendant governance issues. “In terms of failing of governance,” English wrote, “what Rangers have said about the SPFL in recent weeks, Celtic said about the Scottish FA in 2017.” And he lamented the fact that Celtic’s campaign lacked other clubs’ support and “fizzled out,” somehow unaware that his and his industry’s antipathetic attitude to Celtic’s claims was majorly responsible
But English had cherry-picking company. The Herald newspaper’s Martin Williams ”””humorously””” tweeted on 8th May: “Celtic champions. Rangers relegated. Next season scrapped with Celtic awarded championship by default, according to new rule that aims for consistency in Scottish football.” And his pain is almost audible. But citing consistency, however ‘humorously’ was unwise, given Scottish football media inconsistency on poor governance
Scotland’s football media have sown the seeds of the SPFL’s recent conduct through years of neglect of their journalistic duty to hold power to account.