A Week Is A Long Time In (Scottish Football) Politics

by | Apr 14, 2020

Last Wednesday, Scotland’s Professional Football League (SPFL) appeared to get things right-ish with their proposals to end their 2019/2020 season, as the Covid crisis diminished prospects of completing its fixtures.

But, predictably, they mismanaged key issues. And the last week was accurately summarised by Monday’s Herald newspaper headline, “Statement After Statement After Statement After Statement After Statement After Statement After Statement.”

The SPFL circulated a resolution to its 42 clubs, recommending the “immediate termination” of the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2 seasons, with “all play-off competitions cancelled” and final placings “determined by points-per-game…to date.” The Premiership would “remain postponed…to give the best possible opportunity for the remaining fixtures to be played.” And if they couldn’t, final placings would be determined “on the same basis.”

Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers would be promoted, Partick Thistle and Stranraer would be relegated and the SPFL would consult clubs “over the possibility of League restructuring” for 2020/21. And clubs were asked to vote by 5pm Friday.

League chairman, Murdoch MacLennan, said that “at least 13 weeks,” of Covid-19 restrictions made it “impossible to fulfil” remaining non-Premiership fixtures “without huge financial damage and uncertainty.” CEO Neil Doncaster said the board had “consulted extensively with clubs in all four divisions” since mid-March and “expert legal and commercial advice” said this was “the right time to act” to “enable us to make end-of-season fee payments now.”

The Premiership was “particularly complicated” as Uefa wanted “the family of European football” (yuk) “to work together to resolve the issues.” And Uefa were angered by Belgium calling their league on 2nd April. Thus the SPFL delayed a Premiership decision until after Uefa’s 23rd April Executive Committee meeting. “We are keen to work with UEFA and remain in discussion with them,” said a wisely obsequious Doncaster.

Then the fun began…

Rangers responded quickly. And it showed. Their statement appeared to have been sub-edited by someone wearing very dark sunglasses indoors. “We felt it is incumbent that we provide clarity in relation to our position,” they said, in ironically garbled fashion. Unsurprisingly, many fans happily clarified Rangers’ position. Second. Thirteen points off first, with nine games left.

Rangers raised concerns about the “many clubs” who “urgently require financial support” because “it is important to recognise” that “clubs across all the leagues are now in a financially precarious situation.” And they should know, given their own “financially precarious situation.”.

They insisted that the Premiership season could only be “complete when all 38 games have been played,” which meant no title being awarded. But, “as a club,” they would nonetheless “immediately propose a member’s resolution which would release prize money to all clubs throughout Scotland urgently” as it was “vital to show respect for all clubs across the Scottish game, regardless of league position or financial standing.”

However, the statement left key questions unanswered. Would monies be equally distributed? Apparently not, as the resolution would “provide financial support to those who need it most.” And who would decide who “needs it most” and to what extent? “Those who need it most” has been widely translated as “Rangers.”

Rangers were “acutely aware of other issues which are less pressing.” But few believe that Rangers think “nothing is more important than protecting the future of every club in Scotland as we are cognisant that this has a direct impact upon people’s livelihoods.” Or that they found it “abhorrent that certain clubs could be unfairly relegated if the current SPFL proposals were implemented.”

And our shades-wearing indoor sub-editor the let this garbled garbage through: “We must future proof the Scottish game. Solutions to the current impasse must be afforded time to scrutinise in detail and consider all options. The consequences of forcing through change will have severe consequences for the Scottish game.” Consequences with consequences, eh? Still, Rangers would “oppose in the strongest possible terms…any attempts to railroad changes to existing rules or run roughshod over corporate governance.” Running “roughshod over corporate governance” being a Rangers speciality.

Hearts, set to be relegated under the proposals, having been shite against everyone but Rangers this season, also opposed them…co-incidentally, chair Ann Budge declaring that “we will be supporting” Rangers’ resolution. She reported that clubs had discussed “possible options” but “a decision of such magnitude requires significantly more discussion and debate than has been made available.” She had said this in writing to the SPFL on 15th March, to no avail.

She insisted that “no club should be penalised” by the proposals, which she “did not accept” had to be passed in order to release funds. “If the government can change the laws of the land, within 24 hours,” then the SPFL could “modify rules to get things done,” she added, momentarily overlooking the need for “significantly more discussion and debate,” and not thinking through the potential consequences of allowing an executive to govern by “pragmatism, not rules.”

The need for urgent decision-making was amplified by the Scottish FA’s suspension of “all football,” from Premiership to parks, until 10th June. But, instead, on Good Friday, Rangers and the SPFL issued competing versions of a torrid two days..

Rangers’ “Member’s Update” (sic) said that “the SPFL’s legal adviser did not deem our resolution as competent” (cue countless jokes about Rangers’ competence). And they had “prepared this update” before SPFL board discussions, “in the full anticipation” that it would be ruled “not competent.” The victim card was on the table, soon joined by the rest of the pack…and the jokers.

A “confused” Rangers had, unsuccessfully, sought SPFL advice “on several occasions” on Thursday. So, when the SPFL “belatedly identified” the resolution’s incompetence non-competence, they offered to “immediately resubmit” it, with SPFL advice. And they claimed to have “received numerous reports” since Wednesday “from fellow Scottish clubs” about “attempts to coerce and bully them into voting for the SPFL resolution.”

They were “proud that many fellow clubs” would “not be swayed.” And while they “intended” to allow “more time to discuss and evaluate all options,” they expected “no impediments” to “be placed in the way of clubs voting on this matter in a swift manner.”

The SPFL claimed that the resolution “sought to compel” them “to lend money to all 42 clubs.” And “the clear, unequivocal legal advice,“ from “a leading QC, was that Rangers’ resolve was “ineffective in terms of company law.” Because of this, the Board “determined that it cannot be circulated to members.”

The SPFL gleefully dismantled Rangers’ claim to have sought league advice “several” times on Thursday. “Only at 10.18pm did the SPFL’s lawyer receive an email from Rangers seeking advice.” They had offered “to help clubs” draft resolutions on Wednesday. But “Rangers chose to proceed without seeking that help.” Nonetheless, the SPFL offered to “work with Rangers” on resubmission.

And their proposals were “a clear way of quickly delivering much-needed fee payments” to the 30 non-Premiership clubs. “The alternative is further weeks, and possibly months, of uncertainty and financial hardship for dozens of clubs.” However, their next moves were dick moves.

It emerged that the 5pm deadline was a merely “requested cut-off.” Under SPFL rules, the clubs had 28 days to vote. Then, at 5.52, the SPFL announced the results…before all votes were in. The Premiership and Leagues 1 and 2 had “approved the resolution.” But they added, “we await the voting slip from the one Championship club.”

Three-quarters majorities were required from each voting bloc. The Premiership vote was 10-2. The League 1 and 2 vote was 16-3. And the Championship vote was 7-2. The seven votes against was hardly the “many fellow clubs” that Rangers claimed “would not be swayed.” But the Championship vote delayed the resolution’s passing.

In a statement moments after 5pm, the (supposed) non-voters, Dundee laid out thoughtful and diplomatically expressed objections to the proposals. But they were based on previously unheralded claims that the SPFL had “freely admitted that they focused on sporting merit…and did not take into consideration any financial fall-out.”

Dundee reasoned that “no club should be worse off” because of a proposal under which clubs would cumulatively lose “£3.5m-£4m.” But amid talk of “viable, equitable proposed alternatives” and “current placement monies” being distributable “in very short order,” the statement fell short of stating that Dundee had voted no…or at all.

Nevertheless, Rangers brought out their crayons again on Saturday. A “whistleblower” had “alarming evidence” raising “serious concerns” about the SPFL’s “stewardship” of the vote. And Rangers were not about to be “bullied into silence” about them…as if Rangers being “silent” was a thing.

They said Doncaster refused to “discuss the evidence” with Rangers interim chairman Douglas Park and accused the SPFL of attempting “to silence legitimate concerns,” while “the voting debacle” raised “serious questions about the SPFL’s “corporate governance.” Park then claimed that the SPFL’s actions had “shocked” him. “As a member club,” he added, Rangers had “to call for an independent investigation” and for Doncaster and McKenzie’s suspension. On how this would finance struggling clubs, he was silent. Instead, he claimed that “all we ask for is equality and respect.” Ho-ho.

Somehow, the Championship clubs opposed to the resolution managed to “top that.” Inverness Caledonian Thistle (ICT), Partick and Dundee initially decided “to vote together in solidarity.” But ICT chair Barry Gardiner told a disbelieving BBC Sportsound show that they eventually agreed to circulate their voting slips on a Championship club WhatsApp group, “so everyone could see it.”

This seemed an ideal way to rebut SPFL claims about Dundee’s vote. Indeed, BBC Scotland’s Kheredine Idessane reported that the BBC had seen Dundee’s voting slip “signed and dated by managing director John Nelms,” which showed a ‘no’ vote. Idessane ‘saw’ an otherwise invisible £8m bid for Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos from a Chinese club in February 2019. Here, though, images of all the slips accompanied his article.

And Gardiner told Sportsound that when the SPFL announced that there was one Championship club vote to come, he “had the vote in front of me. So I was quite relaxed.” But it then emerged that Dundee secretary Eric Drysdale “had been instructed to hold off on resubmitting their vote” (by Nelms). “Only one club knows what’s going on,” Gardiner confessed.

On Sunday, SPFL chair Murdoch MacLennan wrote to all clubs “to correct significant misinformation appearing in the media.” He said the board “spent an hour discussing (Rangers’ resolution) in great detail” before it was deemed “not effective…based on clear and unequivocal advice from a QC.”

He carefully-worded his claim that “the Rangers director on the board,” Stewart Robertson, “was content with the time given over to that discussion.” Because the Daily Record ‘newspaper’ reported Robertson’s angry discontent with its outcome. “It’s almost as if he’s reading a script that’s been written for him,” said another director, tellingly. Meanwhile, “Rangers’ Company Secretary” James Blair got the chance to work with “the SPFL’s legal counsel Rod McKenzie on a resolution that might be effective.” But “to date, no further requisition has come from Rangers.”

MacLennan then indignantly trashed Park’s “allegations” about the SPFL’s “corporate governance, culture, office-bearers and business operations,” asking Park for “any material to support these allegations.” But “at the time of writing, I have received nothing. It is difficult to understand why (he) should not wish to share this alleged material with me.”

He was “entirely satisfied, based on all the information at my disposal, that the SPFL and its executives and legal advisers have acted wholly properly at every stage.” And “should any club have evidence to the contrary they (have a duty to) bring it to me and I will deal with it in an entirely even-handed way. To do otherwise is harmful to the standing, performance and effective operation of the SPFL and runs counter to the wider interests of our game.”

It was also “simply not the case” that the SPFL board could “distribute end-of-season fee payments now” without finalised league placings. Those who have suggested that the SPFL may make such payments,” (£9.3m gross) before the season finished “are wrong.”

Meanwhile, Dundee’s voting slip “did not reach the SPFL until late (Friday) evening. At 6pm, (they) confirmed in writing that any attempted vote from (them) should not be considered as cast. We have had a number of conversations with (their) chairman over the weekend. He reiterated that (Dundee) had not yet voted. The SPFL has proceeded on the basis of the unequivocal instruction from (them)..”

He confirmed that 40 clubs had voted, “with one Championship and one League 1/League 2 club yet to cast a vote. They have the remainder of the 28-day period to do so.” Oh…and by the way, “the current level of support for the board resolution is 85%.” In case the idea that Scottish football was split remotely ‘down the middle’ should take root.

Rangers repliedzzzzz. They told clubs to be “shocked to learn” that they could “request a loan from the SPFL immediately” as this was “already within the power of the SPFL.” They also claimed that “our resolution was never intended to release end of season fee payments,” (prize money) but to provide loans as an advance on such payments.” Clearly a different Rangers promised last Wednesday that their resolution would “release prize money…to all clubs urgently.”

Hearts harrumphed again too. Budge’s latest wheeze was “a Temporary Adjustment,” of the SPFL to end the season, ensuring that “no Club is financially penalised” (and that Hearts aren’t relegated). And she reaffirmed that “our objections to the Resolution were in large part condemnatory of the process” before showing unexpected unawareness of such processes.

She complained that the board put only one (their own) out of six options to clubs. Which is how legitimate governing body processes often work. “The Board has made a decision and simply wish to convince” clubs to back it. “This is not how you honour the principle that it is up to the members to decide,” she insisted. But if she knew how six options could be put to clubs without time-consuming politicking, she wasn’t saying.

Partick were also upset by processes. But only yesterday, having realised that the proposals might pass, and they’d be relegated, did they overcome their “reticent to get involved publicly.” Their also argued that “no club should be worse off financially (or) in a sporting sense” (trans: relegated). And they asked “senior and junior counsel to identify what can be done to remedy this situation.”

“QC’s legal opinion” was that Dundee’s vote was “in line with” SPFL rules and “must stand, meaning that the resolution falls.” But Dundee don’t agree now. Scottish football’s fate rests with them. And they know it, with SPFL “reconstruction at the forefront” of “various positive discussions” last weekend, and other clubs’ money worries unreferenced in their latest statement. They claim they will act in “the best interests of Dundee FC and Scottish Football.” But their own “best interests” are at the “forefront” of their thinking now.

There are more statements coming from Scottish football than Scottish banks just now. Most have been exercises in clothing naked self-interest. After all, clubs are companies whose boards must act in those interests. But contradictions have abounded. Clubs wanting urgent action complaining that SPFL action has been too urgent. Complaining about acting during a major health crisis, when that crisis has necessitated that action. Or complaining about “lack of leadership” while claiming that the SPFL leading them too quickly to a solution.

The SPFL are as desperate for its clubs to survive as the Scottish Premier League (SPL) was for ‘Rangers’ to be in the top-flight in 2012, when they were ready to bend rules beyond reason. In 2012, most clubs weren’t having it. Most are now, whether gladly, reluctantly or coerced by reality.

Three opponents of the proposals, Partick, Hearts and Stranraer, would be relegated under them. And Dundee, for all the shenanigans over their vote, at least presented a cogent argument, right or wrong, in keeping with what a “league” of clubs should be. In the sharpest possible contrast to Rangers.

If your team had played like Rangers in 2020, you’d want the season nulled-and-voided too. But their concerns over lower-league clubs have dissolved. They are as desperate for finance as any club. And they are desperate for titles to be withheld (well, one) because they are playing to their loonball gallery (“Rangers should get a Champions League spot because we’re still in Europe,” said one, live on Radio Clyde. “Oh, that’s…creative,” replied presenter Gordon Duncan, correctly).

Still, the past week has provided apparently sought-after “discussion and debate.” BBC Scotland’s chief sportswriter Tom English was right that “skin and hair will fly.” But a solution exists, amid the linguistic carnage. Dundee may vote yes. And if so (an ‘if’ the size of Donald Trump’s ego, admittedly), then Scottish football’s long weekend may just have been worthwhile.