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SPFL and Covid 19: A crisis of confidence?

Calum Clark explores the crisis that has engulfed Scottish football over the last month.

A misplaced vote, an association at war with itself, the threat of financial ruin and whole clubs on the brink of extinction, it all sounds so far-fetched almost like a storyline from a low budget daytime TV soap, but alas it is the stark reality facing Scottish football as years of bitterness and mismanagement boiled to the surface in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic that has afflicted the world.

The crisis began after the reckless decision from authorities to allow the Glasgow Rangers vs Bayer Leverkusen Europa League tie to go ahead at Ibrox on the 12th of March 2020 this year as the deadly coronavirus was taking grip of the world. With many fans attending the game, it is likely that some cases may have been spread as fans were so close to each other in the stands. With no fans wearing an earloop procedure face mask, the disease may have been able to spread. With this disease beginning to take over the UK, this game was the last before the inevitable suspension of all football in Scotland which was finally enacted after the stark rise in deaths and cases in the UK with the SPFL actually showing greater leadership than the Government at the time by suspending all fixtures for the foreseeable future. When football does return, it’s likely that all fans, when allowed to return to stadiums, will be made to wear protective gear and masks to limit the spread of disease.

Sadly for Scottish Football it was the first and last bit of clear and concise leadership shown by the SPFL board, within days the original plans of a short suspension of the season went out the window as the reality of the coronavirus hit home and the idea of a short 3 week isolation break became a fantasy.

All involved agreed that a solution was needed to get what was left of the prize money paid out to all teams across all four divisions to stave off a financial meltdown but how to go about it?

As the days went on the lack of leadership and information was filled with numerous statements from member clubs, and in the board rooms of Scotland there was a growing unease of what was going on in the virtual corridors of the SPFL as information was sporadically making its way to the back pages of Scotland’s daily red tops hinting at the season being called off with relegations and promotions being carried out which would see championships being awarded and condemning those in relegation places to a fate which would see them financially worse off.

The rumours became louder with each passing day as many clubs began to worry about the repercussions of what they were hearing becoming reality. Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a side who would lose out on a playoff for the chance to play in the Premiership reported in a club statement released on the 10th of May that they and other clubs were talking to each other at championship level and began to communicate to the SPFL board about the rumours of the lower three leagues being called off with relegation and promotion being carried out despite a high number of fixtures still to be played. They were reassured by the SPFL board on the 7th of April that it was just rumours and that the SPFL would not make a decision that would leave any club in a worse case than it was already in.

But on the 8th of April at 6pm the regional TV channel STV was breaking the news that the SPFL had made the decision to push ahead with the plan that just 24 hours before they had rejected when speaking to member clubs.

At this point tribalism and toxicity came to the boil as the battle-lines began to form and it’s here that the main problems began to arise.

Throughout the process Glasgow Rangers had been vocal about the way they thought Scottish Football should deal with the crisis that was engulfing the SPFL. Their call was a simple one, it was that the games remaining should be played at the earliest opportunity but not until it was safe to do so and that all money due to clubs should be paid out on their current league positions as an advancement or loan. There is no doubt this was a fair request but also one which also did not hand city rivals Celtic a league championship (their ninth in a row) and did not rule out the possibility of null and voiding the season if the games became impossible to play.

Along with Rangers there were the voices of discontent from Inverness, Partick Thistle, Dundee, Stranraer, Hearts, Kelty Hearts, Brora Rangers and Falkirk all vocally denouncing the plans that had been put forward, for the obvious reasons that they would be relegated or miss out on promotion without a ball being kicked.

The resolution put forward from the SPFL was for all three of the lower leagues to be ended with relegation and promotion for every league bar relegation from League Two effectively barring both Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts from having their chance to gain promotion to the SPFL ranks.

This was to become a contentious point as Brechin City who were propping up League 2 and 7 points adrift would be saved. Just by chance their chairman Ken Ferguson was a sitting member of the SPFL board and instrumental in the plans being put forward. The other implication was that if possible the Premiership could follow suit, but the hold-up with this action was UEFA and more specifically their reaction to the Belgium Jupiler Pro League declaring their league over and awarding Club Bruges the Championship and the European place that goes with it.

The reaction from UEFA was quick and brutal with the threat of expulsion from European football if there was no attempt to play the remaining games when it was safe to do so.

But as the Coronavirus Crisis developed in mainland Europe and the huge human cost of life especially in Bergamo, Italy and in Madrid, Spain began to hit home UEFA revised its earlier statement with the agreement that all leagues must write to UEFA to tell them what their decision was by the 25th of May and if the league was voided state which sides would represent them in European competition based on their final league standings.

This leads to the curious case of the representative letter sent on behalf of the SPFL and SFA to UEFA in the week leading up to the vote on the 10th April 2020, as at that point they were yet to vote on the resolution put forward by the SPFL board.

But the letter sent by Neil Doncaster SPFL Chief Executive and counter signed by Ian Maxwell Chief Executive of the SFA stated that an overwhelming majority of clubs wished to have the season ended with European places given to the clubs who currently occupied the league positions, but there were a few issues with this –

  1. The vote had yet to take place and had not mentioned the Premiership being concluded
  2. The SFA who runs the Scottish Cup had released a statement announcing their intention to play the Scottish Cup when it was possible and they would work to get Scotland’s Playoff game with Israel played at the next possible international window.

It’s here that there seems to be a clear diversion from what was being said in the corridors of both associations and what was being told to the public and it was here the anger and frustration was beginning to boil over from member clubs.

For the SPFL resolution to pass it needed a clear majority decision in each league which looked impossible as 3 of the clubs in the Championship, Dundee, Inverness and Partick Thistle had agreed to vote against the proposal taking the majority below the 75% mark, effectively rejecting it at championship level and killing the only option the SPFL had put forward.

This was the only proposal as every other was rejected by the board including the Rangers counter proposal which was rejected on the grounds of not being feasible or legal, something which was going to become a highly controversial topic in the incoming days along with curious case of Dundee’s disappearing vote which was a tabloid writer’s wet dream.

On the day of the vote the process became a farce as the SPFL announced the voting results before the end of the voting at 5pm.

In doing so they revealed all but one Championship club had submitted its vote with seven for the proposal and two against it, and now the SPFL was leaving said club 28 days for them to vote and also 28 days for any other club to change their vote for the proposal but none were allowed to change their vote to go against it.

This was something that had not been discussed at the beginning of the process and the ramifications of the SPFL’s actions were felt immediately as clubs began to phone around to find out who had not voted, it then became clear that it was Dundee who had yet to cast their vote despite telling Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Partick Thistle that they had submitted the vote before the 5pm deadline on the 10th of April. All three even went as far as taking a picture of their votes signed by their chief executives before sending them.

So what happened to the Dundee vote was the 6 million dollar question as clubs and journalists tried desperately to find out what had happened between Dundee sending their vote and the SPFL receiving it. Did Dundee lie to Inverness and Partick or was it just an admin error? no one knew but as a couple of hours passed it was clear that something was not right as Dundee effectively went dark with no one able to get confirmation from their side to what had happened.

As for the SPFL they stuck to their line that they never received the vote something which was proved to be false in the coming days as it was confirmed that Dundee sent the vote only to ask for it to be ignored or rescinded just before the closing of the voting (As this story has been changed numerous times by Dundee it’s hard to really know what happened in those final few minutes before 5pm)

It was at this point the finger pointing and bile from each side was getting to its peak as the bigotry and hate that takes little to fester began with many drawing the conclusion fairly or unfairly depending on your side of the argument that Dundee had been pressured to change its vote to suit a selection of clubs who would benefit at the cost of others.

The SPFL refuted any claim of wrongdoing even going as far as having a shotgun investigation done by the audit firm Deloitte who checked over phone records and emails of SPFL staff to find nothing irregular.

This was to become another strangeness in the proceedings as the audit was to be done and commissioned without votes taken from all member clubs and also had a very narrow scope to investigate.

Stranger still, the cost of an independent review was being used as a reason for not having an independent investigation which now many clubs were calling for (the cost of the Deloitte audit as of writing this is yet to be revealed or who paid for it).

Fuel was added to the fire with claims of evidence from Glasgow Rangers which proved that Dundee and other clubs had been bullied and that the SPFL had ran rough shod over the whole voting procedure. This was immediately denied by the SPFL board but because of the lack of openness at the start of the discussions many began to question the validity of their claims with comments coming from the likes of Aberdeen Chairman Dave Cormack that he had been told by Neil Doncaster before 5pm on the 10th that the vote would pass and his vote would not be crucial for the proposal to pass and that certain assurances had been made to Aberdeen. This did nothing but add to the ever increasing pressure on the SPFL board and Neil Doncaster in particular.

The knock on effect created a strange week or so of claim and counter claim with Glasgow Rangers and Hearts two of the biggest clubs in Scotland being the most vocal about what they had seen as a clear lack of leadership from the SPFL Board. It was now that Rangers asked for the immediate suspension of Chairman Murdoch MacLennan and Chief Executive Neil Doncaster who they saw as at fault for what had gone ahead with a claim that an eventual dossier of evidence would back them up, something that would later show clear evidence of mistruths and incompetence from the SPFL board but no smoking gun of evidence proving any conspiracy.

It was during this time that a lot of ire was being directed at Dundee and their Chief Executive John Nelms who had been the man in charge of their vote and who had yet to be heard from. After days of silence it was announced by John Nelms and Dundee they would be voting for the proposal to allow much needed funds to be released to allow clubs who were on the brink of ruin to receive the funds due to them from the SPFL prize money.

He denied any interference and but admitted to have been talking to the SPFL during the ensuing days to get a group of clubs to come together to form a forum on league reconstruction, something that would benefit the Scottish game and is very popular with a majority of fans who have become frustrated at the stale format. Nelms was effectively claiming he had made Dundee kingmaker for the greater good of Scottish football, this would prove to be as naïve as it sounds.

But no sooner had the group been setup than it was already clear an agreement would not be reached as the group was made up of clubs who all had massive self-interest and differing options began to form with the effectively relegated Hearts and perennial Premiership relegation dogfighters Hamilton leading the discussions.

It was clear if anything was to go through it was going to benefit a few not the many with the likes of Clyde and Cove Rangers missing out on promotion due to reconstruction. There was also the added problem of the now pyramid system which Scotland had introduced, which heavily weighted in favour of the SPFL members rather than the Lowland and Highland league teams. These teams missed out on a clear path to the professional ranks with a two legged play-off tie awaiting one of the league champions.

It was with all this uncertainty that the discussions continued with the 15 strong panel talking through which setup would work the best but it was like turkeys voting for Christmas as each method was going to benefit one group over another or even more bizarrely only last a year or two before going back to the 12-10-10-10 structure that is currently in place. This lead to Hibs Chief Executive Leanne Dempster walking off the panel as is became apparent nothing would come of the discussions.

The mudslinging had not stopped during this time with every man and his dog releasing statement and counter statement with the evidence dossier from Rangers being released leading to condemnation in some quarters for its lack of a silver bullet and applauded in others for its effort in highlighting the poor leadership of the SPFL.

It was to lead to a crescendo of a proposal for an EGM for an independent investigation into the goings on at the SPFL in the weeks leading up to the vote and the implications of the withheld information among which was the possibility of losing out on £10 Million of TV revenue and the poor renegotiated TV deal that had been signed with Sky Sports for the broadcasting rights for the next 5 years. (For clarity the TV deal for Scottish Football is below that of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland and Greece which considering Scotland’s viewing figures is poor)

As was predicted by most, the reconstruction talks failed with the Premiership sides voting against the proposal, which effectively sealed the fate of those clubs who were in the relegation places. This was especially harsh on Partick Thistle who were at the bottom of the championship with a game in hand within 2 points off Queen of the South who funnily enough voted for an end to the season.

Even more evident was the EGM proposal for an independent investigation proposed by Rangers, Hearts and Stranraer was never going to get the majority of the 42 clubs to vote for it as it required 75% of member clubs to pass, and this was never going to be possible.

But there was significant support for the proposal with 13 clubs voting for it and two abstentions which was more than what most thought it would get. More importantly, three of the biggest clubs in Scotland had voted for the proposal with Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers all voting in favour of the investigation, something that going forward is going to be difficult to ignore as the after effects of last month rumble on with no end to the hatred but the end of the season imminent.

On the 18th of May the decision was finally taken to end the Premiership season with Celtic confirmed champions and Hearts relegated but one can imagine that this only signals the end of one chapter and the beginning of another more troubling episode for Scottish Football.

Sadly for most Scottish football fans like myself the whole thing has left a sad feeling of a new chaotic normality of hatred, incompetence and tribalism. For me, looking in from the outside I feel a dread at the huge divide which only widens, endangering our game in a time which it should bring those from all walks of life together, especially when we all realise how trivial football is in the grand scheme of things.

Have there been mistakes on all sides during this? Undoubtedly

Has there been corruption? I Hope not

Have we seen the end of this? I Fear not

Will Scottish football recover?

Stay safe everyone, and unlike Scottish Football let’s try and all help each other. It makes life a little easier.

Read all our Opinion articles here.

Calum Clark

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