Scottish football does not have a monopoly on toxicity. At times like these it just feels that way. In a period when serious discussions should be taking place about the recalibration of football post-pandemic open warfare has broken out. People with involvement spanning decades admit they have not encountered anything quite like the past few days.
When the chairman of the Scottish Professional Football League rounded on “damaging misinformation” in the media he had a cheek. The SPFL’s reputation has been damaged, all right to the point of laughing stock by a voting farce which barely feels believable.
The league’s board stands accused by the owner of a major club of exerting undue influence. Another club wants the SPFL’s chief executive and legal advisor suspended. The SPFL has routinely been harmed by thousands belting out verses from a sectarian hit parade on live television and missiles from the stands resulting in no proper sanction at all.
This body has no title sponsor for next season, a television deal – plus plenty more – beholden to one fixture, an annual split which distorts the fundamentals of league football and has been a recurring on-field laughing stock beyond its own border for years.
If Murdoch MacLennan believes the media has tarnished what he presides over one wonders about his sense of perspective on the weekend his league deemed it acceptable to release results of an incomplete vote.
Dundee haven’t enjoyed, if that is the appropriate term, as much time in the limelight since they were jousting with Milan in the semi-final of the 1962-63 European Cup. In the context of 2019-20, the Dens Park club has become embroiled in an almighty and unsatisfactory mess; about which, three days later, they remain conspicuously silent.
The earlier chain of events would have rocket scientists scratching their heads. After weeks of background talks, clubs were hastily delivered with a proposal that would close and call the campaign. Despite glaring fixture imbalances, average points per game – as never heard of before – would be implemented. The top flight planned to delay an announcement of Celtic as champions and relegation for Hearts until they could tickle Uefa’s tummy on 23 April. Finance was mooted as key; define league placings, issue more than £9m of prize money deemed vital during coronavirus.
The league has never allowed any sense of finishing 2019-20 to linger. The SPFL has told clubs of its anxiety to be in a position to start the new season on the first weekend of August as per a new contract with Sky. An early April letter from the Scottish government to the SPFL curiously states “based on the specialist advice you received it would be likely to take around six weeks of group training and conditioning before players are ready to safely play SPFL fixtures again”. Season 2018-19 ended on 19 May, with Rangers playing in the Europa League on 9 July; after a close-season break.
Clubs had guidance to deliver votes by Friday; 75 per cent in the top flight, 75 per cent in the Championship and 75 per cent in Leagues One and Two combined would pass the resolution. It exposes a woeful governance structure that Albion Rovers and Cowdenbeath have influence on outcomes for Celtic and Hearts and vice versa.
By an uncanny quirk, three clubs represented on the SPFL board would appear to benefit from a yes vote; Motherwell to the tune of third in the Premiership, Hamilton in respect of guaranteed safety and Brechin – this is the most extraordinary aspect of all – spared a relegation play-off when rooted at the bottom of League Two.
Rangers have a man on the SPFL board but in a football sense are in the rare position of having precious little to lose nor gain with the league being abandoned now; as hasn’t prevented a row of epic proportions with the league.
Dundee’s vote, a key one, was missing as the SPFL took the unprecedented step of telling the public how 39 of 42 clubs had voted on Friday evening. By Saturday the Inverness chief executive, Scot Gardiner, had confirmed a “No” ballot paper, signed and dated by Dundee’s managing director, was valid as circulated around fellow clubs.
MacLennan’s explanation, 24 hours later, insisted Dundee “attempted to submit a voting slip, which did not reach the SPFL until late that evening”. The league chairman added: “Earlier, at 6pm on Friday, that club had confirmed in writing to the SPFL that any attempted vote from that club should not be considered as cast.” So there we have it; Dundee somehow knew their vote wasn’t going to land imminently and, in the meantime, asked the league to disregard it anyway.
It is perfectly plausible that an electronic firewall blocked Dundee’s email. Far more concerning is the as yet unexplained events and communications that caused the club to back off from its casting. Dundee were obliged – by everyone apart from the SPFL – to resubmit precisely the same paper. In not doing so, and somehow being cast as kingmakers, Dundee and the SPFL have fatally undermined the outcome of this resolution. It simply cannot be taken seriously.
The SPFL’s desperation to have the resolution passed was laid bare last week. “The alternative is further weeks, and possibly months, of uncertainty and financial hardship for dozens of clubs which are desperately looking for a way to survive,” said a spokesman. This language appeared needlessly aggressive, even before the Hearts owner, Ann Budge, raised the question of “whether the board is attempting to unduly influence the members’ decision-making process”. Clubs are, surely, allowed to vote as they see fit.
Rangers’ central grievance, never understated, relates to evidence in their possession which they allege “raises serious concerns surrounding the SPFL’s processes relating to its stewardship of the voting on the resolution presented to member clubs”.
MacLennan has compelled Rangers to hand over said paperwork. On the face of it, not unreasonably, the Ibrox club don’t want to furnish the very people they are complaining about with information. Rangers’ problem relates to what their alternative is. If the league are absolutely adamant there have been no dark arts they should call Rangers’ bluff and convene an independent investigation.
Rangers also failed with an initiation of a resolution aimed at releasing end-of-season funds to SPFL clubs. A Rangers spokesman said on Sunday that “the SPFL board already has the authority to provide loans to member clubs”. Such a principle questions the league’s position on “financial hardship” given that the prize money is already in its bank accounts.
Celtic are in an invidious position albeit a rump of their support, casting aspersions at Rangers’ broadsides, are specialists in railing against Scottish football officialdom. This discord for now has nothing to do with Celtic, spare a wish to have a ninth title in succession confirmed at some point and the recurring suspicion – for now it is only that – of Scotland’s dominant force exerting too much influence at the summit of the game.
That Rangers don’t want Celtic’s retention of the trophy nailed down is as obvious as Tuesday follows Monday; it may be that a sufficient racket has been made for any title celebrations to be laughed off by all external observers anyway.
We are entitled to act similarly in respect of the entire scene. Calm heads, sensible decision-making and working for a greater good has never been so vital nor so absent.