Scottish Football’s Season Finish, Part 2

by | Apr 22, 2020

So. Farewell. Then. Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) season, below the Premiership. The SPFL resolution to end the season finally passed almost exactly a week since it was proposed. But bitterness remains after the fraught vote process. Well, some anyway

Last Wednesday evening, the SPFL declared the resolution “passed…by 81% of all members…after the remaining Championship club” (Dundee) “signified their agreement.” The next words were “resulting in Dundee United being declared champions of the Championship,” revealing a certain irony in Dundee’s vote. Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers were declared League 1 and 2 champions respectively.

But this statement merely begat more statements, calls for independent investigations into corruption allegations and threats of legal action, with Rangers calling loudest, despite ostensibly being unaffected by the resolution. And the clubs whose need for urgent funding has now been met? Barely mentioned among those statements, calls, allegations and threats.

On Friday, the SPFL announced the distribution of “more than £1.8m” to its 30 non-Premiership clubs. They expected clubs to get “the vast majority of funds” that day, which SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster hoped would “help bridge the gap” in club finances that “could have” resulted in ”a number…simply ceasing to exist.”

Distributions ranged from Championship winners Dundee United’s £209,250 to League 2 bottom club Brechin City’s £16.749. Resolution rejectors voted to reject £176,700 (Inverness Caledonian Thistle – ICT), £148,800 (Dundee), £65,100 (Partick Thistle) and £26,040 (Stranraer). Premiership clubs, whose season lives on in the hope of an on-field finish, will have to wait for their share. Though Rangers will surely return their £892,800 on principle.

Their effectiveness is uncertain. Alloa’s £74,400 would put a useful dent in the £154,239 they owed to chairman Mike Mulraney’s companies last May. But ICT’s £176,700 is dwarfed by their £892,465 losses and million-pound net debts last year. Which makes chairman Scott Gardiner organising opposition to the resolution appear especially counter-intuitive. As observers questioned Gardiner’s motives, BBC Scotland’s chief sportswriter Tom English tweeted. “You’re focusing on Scot Gardiner? Really?” Well…yes.

But it is impossible to gauge how league positions may have changed over the unplayed games and, therefore, the cost of the resolution itself to clubs. Clubs can estimate relegation costs. But not whether the resolution, or being sh*te since August, relegated them. For instance, Partick’s immediate pre-suspension form was fractionally better than the team above them, Queen of the South. And they were two points behind with a game in hand. But form can change fractionally back. And they were averaging below a point-per-game when the season stopped.

Legal threats dissolved in the face of those arguments…and expense. So the focus is now the league restructuring over which the SPFL committed to “consult with Clubs.” And the loudest non-Rangers opposition to the proposals, Hearts chair Ann Budge, has shouted herself into joint-chairing, with Hamilton chair Les Gray, a 15-strong “League Reconstruction Taskforce” announced on Friday.

The taskforce also includes Partick chair Jacqui Low, John Nelms, who handbrake-turned Dundee’s original vote and Falkirk chairman Gary Deans. The Bairns “reluctantly” accepted the vote result but immediately stressed that “urgent and meaningful league reconstruction is essential given the unfair consequences (of the resolution) for many clubs, Falkirk included.”

Deans was more direct in his weekly Falkirk Herald newspaper ‘diary’: “I am furious. The SPFL’s decision to roll up complex decisions…into one resolution was entirely wrong.” He also said Falkirk “came under intense pressure from the SPFL” and, significantly, “other clubs,” without suggesting coercion or bullying. Falkirk finished 24th in the SPFL’s overall pecking order. Expect Deans to favour a 24-team top two flights.

“Speed is of the essence,” Budge now believes, after days insisting that “decisions” of “magnitude” required “significant” discussion. It may seem like she wants reconstruction just to keep Hearts in the top-flight, But…oh…wait…that IS it. Indeed, with the taskforce barely announced, English felt fine writing that “potential” reconstruction would promote “(Dundee) United, Raith and Cove” with “two extra” League Two teams and “no relegation for Hearts, Thistle or Stranraer.”

The SPFL said the taskforce would consult on a previously unheralded “expanded Premiership model,” which English’s “potential” reconstruction would increase to 14 clubs, while leaving the other divisions at ten. That would increase the league to 44 clubs, after Budge said in August 2016 that “42 senior clubs is too many for Scotland. You’re looking at about half that number.”

Teams playing each other twice before the ‘split’ would produce the truncated 2020/21 which might be required. But, tellingly, talk of 14-10-10-10 has pre-dated detailed discussion. The taskforce includes Highland and Lowland League reps. And their champions would join the SPFL to facilitate ‘promoting’ the ‘required’ teams. So, the fix may already be in. That may have been the ‘deal’ all along. Pass the resolution. And fanny about (technical term) with the teams-per-division to satisfy all self-interests. These ends don’t justify every means. But, so what?

Not all self-interests will be satisfied, though. Rangers have no interest in, nor are interested in (two different things), Scotland’s lower-division clubs. Or SPFL procedures. They need their prize money And their only interest is in the season being declared “null-and-void,” to stop Celtic’s ninth consecutive title. Of course, they wouldn’t lead this campaign (such as it is within football, or anywhere bar the usual media suspects) if they were top, even on goal difference. Or if Motherwell were. Or Aberdeen.

And they have said two-tenths of five-eighths of f**k all. about Dundee United (not one of their favourite clubs) who, unlike Celtic, were actually awarded a title by the resolution. Their first insistence was that the season is “only complete when all 38 games have been played.” Only the Premiership has 38 games. All other divisions play 36.

Rangers apparently hold “whistleblower” evidence raising “serious concerns” about the resolution vote’s “stewardship.” And “other clubs, who have seen (this) evidence, share our concerns.” However, they will only give that evidence to an “independent” investigator. It hasn’t even become a Record “exclusive,” which might suggest to cynics that it doesn’t exist.

And this week, Rangers were even more desperate. On Wednesday, well-known governance expert Gerrard said, out loud, that “from afar” the SPFL looked “an absolute mess.” And “all” he wanted was “the main leader of the SPFL,” whose name was presumably invisible “from afar,” to “allow an independent investigation, to prove everything wrong, because there are so many accusations, doubts and questions.”

The need for evidence to investigate and the onus of proof being on the accusers escaped him, probably because “I’m listening to ex-players and pundits.” He likened an internal SPFL investigation, to “marking your own homework.” And he declared that “if everything’s clean, fair and transparent then the media and ex-players can’t slam the organisation.” Uh-huh.

On Thursday, Rangers insisted, unironically, that “no fair minded person can take the outcome of this vote seriously.” They wanted “all options” evaluated for completing the Premiership, “including on the field of play.” And they semi-coherently cited “precedent within Scottish football that a league must not be compromised by changing the rules during the competition.” Meanwhile, the board “continue to examine all legal options available.” And affordable.

But Tuesday “topped” the lot. Interim chairman, Douglas Park played the anti-Rangers conspiracy card, regurgitating a July 2017 Private Eye magazine article which claimed SPFL chair Murdoch MacLennan “hates” Rangers and once said “ah cannae stand the bastards,” about Rangers fans’ hooliganism. Park insisted that MacLennan “clarify his stance” on this.

Rangers were told “Foxtrot Oscar” on this issue in July 2018. And Park’s bleatings have largely been filed under “really?” Because, as not reported this week, the article added: “Not that he cared much for Celtic,” after he was refused a Celtic directorship; and he made his ‘comments’ “when he was managing director of the Daily Record in the 1990s.” Yes…really.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Mail ‘newspaper’s’ Scott McDermott “exclusively revealed” an “explosive letter” from Park to MacLennan which made “four demands.” Alongside the Private Eye pish, Park wanted MacLennan suspended and a copy of the SPFL’s whistleblower policy, so that MacLennan, somehow, couldn’t “have access to it.” (so…three demands). Park also accused MacLennan of “denying Rangers free speech”…after ten days when Rangers have scarcely shut up.

But clubs are now social distancing from Rangers. Budge called the bullying allegations “hearsay.” And after she declared last Friday that “you shouldn’t be awarded a title if you haven’t played 38 games,” Hearts tried the old “taken out of context” routine, ‘clarifying’ that she was “not expressing an opinion on whether…Dundee Utd and Celtic…will be deserving winners of their titles.” But again, the “38 games” reference is a giveaway..

Yet…yet…yet, some SPFL conduct NEEDS investigation. “The centre has made mistakes in this process,” noted Dundee, correctly. “Publishing the incomplete ballot results” was fundamentally wrong and, as Dundee noted, “put (us) in a position to receive criticism and undue torment.” It also gave Dundee absolute power over Scottish club football for four days. But their point stands.

The SPFL should also have crystal clarified the two-day deadline they set for the vote. SPFL rules set 28-day deadlines for such matters, which clearly wasn’t practical, given the declared urgency of the situation. But the SPFL’s faffing around with deadlines facilitated media misrepresentations and let clubs opposing the resolution cry “foul.”

Gray labelled the idea that Doncaster had “bullied” clubs “complete nonsense,” adding: “If you’ve met (him), the idea that he bullied anyone is absolutely hysterical.” The idea that many of Scottish football’s ‘personalities’ could be bullied is scarcely less hysterical. Rangers kept shouting about not being “bullied into silence” and no-one was arguing.

The SPFL board clearly put considerable pressure on clubs. Budge said that “tying the resolution to the release of money put undue pressure on clubs; the whole style in which the resolution was written lends itself to claims (of coercion).” ICT chairman Ross Morrison, whose club also opposed the resolution, claimed the SPFL put “a gun to our heads.” But no-one has suggested that the SPFL made the physical or existential threats implied by “bullying.”

And the SPFL had to put forward one motion which was capable of attracting 75% support from three separate voting blocs, with the time-critical nature of the release of funds to clubs not in dispute. Budge suggested that clubs should have been allowed to vote on multiple options. But the idea that 75% support would emerge from that exercise before clubs succumbed to financial, yes, pressure to receive funds, was fanciful at best. The SPFL have frequently been called to “show leadership.” Yet when they did, in spades, they were accused of coercive bullying.

All that said, the circumstances surrounding Dundee’s vote need establishing. The supposedly “prosaic truth” that it was sent to the wrong mailbox is firmly in “dog ate my homework” territory. Even if true, that points to worrying administrative incompetence. That it happened to a vote which would have defeated the resolution seems…handy.

The reconstruction taskforce is up-and-running, despite some misgivings. Hibs chair Leanne Dempster withdrew before the first meeting, to focus on “bigger issues” connected with football’s post-crisis restart. While Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack noted, sardonically, that “the task force is to expand the Premiership and it hasn’t ended yet.”

Indeed, it may not end for a while, as Uefa hold the key to European top-flight fates. The realistic prospect of finishing the season in an at all reasonable timescale has been slim-to-none for weeks. Playing games ‘behind closed doors’ would be logistically preposterous, or not “optimal,” as Dempster understated enormously. But there is too much broadcast and other money at stake for Uefa not to explore every option for finishing seasons.

Meanwhile, Scottish media continue to vilify the SPFL, at least in part to back-up the “null-and-void” campaign. English wrote of “the time when the domestic game, forever teetering on the edge of bonkerdom, finally tipped itself into full-blown circus act.”

But the SPFL may ultimately have got this right, even if accidentally. On 15th March, two days after the season was suspended, the Record asked “top Mischon de Reya sports lawyer Simon Leaf” to outline the legal options for clubs opposed to ending the season early (he concluded that they would have to prove that doing so was unreasonable). The article stated that Hearts’ board was “set to thrash out a possible course of action” that week. For all the talk of rushed processes, clubs had as much time as the SPFL board to propose a united resolution. But only the SPFL board acted.

English club football has far, far more at stake. Financial and otherwise. So Scotland’s situation offers them no direct lessons. Yet they may envy the SPFL progress in satisfying its clubs’ varied self-interests.

Talk of bitterness and recrimination is rife. But the SPFL resolution was passed 35-7, hardly split down the middle. Ant the tangible concerns of most of the seven are being addressed by the Taskforce. Even if clubs will still be financially-pressured for the forecastable future (“we’d be as well taking £1m out to the car park and setting fire to it,” Cormack, again sardonically noted of Aberdeen’s monthly losses).

This has left the bitterness and recrimination to Rangers. Which shows that even during existential crises, some things never change.