Rancour in the ranks grows as SPFL heads back to ballot box | Football

Those immersed in the campaign for an independent Scotland know this movie well. For six years, following defeat in a referendum, they have been urged to accept the democratic will and get on with it.

The executive of the Scottish Professional Football League has adopted a predictably similar approach as it seeks to drown out noise surrounding the curtailment of this season. It has preached about 81% support from a now infamous vote and naysayers have been told to pipe down.

The SPFL’s attitude misses a core point. If, as widely alleged, the resolution to abandon the season was not appropriate then the number of those who supported it is irrelevant. The league published a result with the vote still open. Lost in the melee is that the outcome hinged on one vote, from Dundee, which was changed. We are in the dark about the specifics of conversations attached to that U-turn.

SPFL members head back to the ballot box on Tuesday at an extraordinary general meeting called to determine whether an independent investigation should assess the season’s abandonment. The odds remain strongly against an inquiry but more questions than answers continue to arise about the governance of Scottish football and the discord is especially intense.

On Sunday the SPFL’s chief executive, Neil Doncaster – a man who should deliver online tutorials in semantics – spoke of the “democracy” within his organisation. Listeners had cause to laugh. The SPFL requires an 11-1 vote to make changes in its top league. The Old Firm to swap board positions in rotation. In seeking support for a resolution to conclude the season, the executive was, to put it mildly, forceful.

“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,” it said. The same group – adamant there has been no wrongdoing – is curiously vehement over why an independent investigation must not happen. Paraphrased: there’s a pandemic out there, don’t waste our time.

Three years ago the SPFL wrote to the Scottish Football Association demanding – you guessed it – an independent investigation into Rangers’ 2012 implosion.

Neil Doncaster, the SPFL’s chief executive, has spoken of the ‘democracy’ within his organisation. Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA

Much of the dispute has regressed towards an Old Firm battleground. Rangers, stinging in their criticism of the SPFL, have offered to pay for an independent investigation after the league cited cost as a prohibitive factor. In response, Doncaster suggested the question of independence may be up for debate if one club footed the bill. He admits to being unaware of the cost of the SPFL-arranged investigation – with a remit as wide as the side of a fiver – swiftly completed by Deloitte. It may suit some to paint this as an SPFL v Rangers battle, when the reality should be different.

League reconstruction, mooted to mitigate losses suffered by relegated clubs, Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer, unsurprisingly went down in flames on Friday. In this “democracy” it took half a dozen top-flight clubs to sink the plan. One top-flight chairman described the process as a “wild goose chase”.

Ann Budge, the Hearts owner who jointly led a reconstruction task force, said: “The total disregard for the members of the board sub-committee and the efforts they had put in was quite staggering. To pour more financial hardship on specific clubs, given what we are all going through both now and for the foreseeable future, is both outrageous and shameful.”

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Almost 80% of players had backed an expanded Premiership in a union survey.

Budge lamented the SPFL’s unwillingness to determine with Sky what reconstruction would mean for a broadcast contract the governing body appears beholden to.

A story has been allowed to build that Hearts are being given special treatment because of their size. The opposite is true; there has been a general reluctance to act because of the club’s scale. Heavily and needlessly penalising three clubs from a members’ organisation during a global crisis is extraordinary.

The Falkirk chairman, Gary Deans, has berated the “utter shambles” of recent weeks. “The handling of this entire situation has been farcical, ranging from the decisions made by the SPFL board to those clubs who have [been] what could only be charitably described as misled and deceived,” he claimed. The SPFL has not provided a response to Deans’s caustic words. “There is a distressing lack of confidence and trust between the SPFL leadership and many of the clubs,” said Dave Cormack, the Aberdeen chairman. He will support the investigation call.

Inverness bit back at comments from Doncaster which brushed off bullying allegations as the resolution vote deadline approached. “We will testify to the bullying and threats made against our club on Friday 10th by an SPFL board member and the threats against others by the same SPFL board member,” they said. The Championship club lambasted a “disingenuous, incompetent shambles” and “arrogant, aggressive, mismanagement”. Doncaster declined to comment on this at the weekend but said of bullying allegations: “Clearly there are robust exchanges between clubs. We were aware particularly in the Championship that these robust conversations were ongoing but nobody reported any bullying to me.”

Iain McMenemy, the chairman of Stenhousemuir, said he encountered “disdain and defensiveness” when raising questions about the “culture” of the SPFL.

The SPFL’s correspondence to members has been appalling in tone. Murdoch MacLennan, the league’s lesser-spotted chairman, raised eyebrows with his claim that while “those who voted to reject the resolution have the luxury of criticism without responsibility, the SPFL board has a duty to act”.

The clubs in question have responsibility all right. Partick Thistle have criticised MacLennan’s “outrageous and damaging” allegation relating to “agendas”. “The language used is divisive and accusatory,” said Jacqui Low, Thistle’s chair, in a letter to MacLennan on 30 April.

George Fraser, the chairman of the Lowland League, highlighted a recurring theme when recalling an SPFL request early in 2020 that Brechin City – represented on the SPFL board and the bottom club in the bottom tier – drop into their setup rather than, as rules suggest, the Highland League.

“Pressured is the word,” Fraser said. “There were certain insinuations made if we didn’t move towards this proposal then we may find life a bit more difficult in dealing with our friends at the SPFL.” Miraculously, when the resolution was passed to end the season in the bottom division, Brechin were spared a relegation play-off and told they would stay in the league. The SPFL did not comment on these or any other allegations.

Technically Fraser is not in the SPFL bubble so one can bet his thoughts will be readily disregarded. The SPFL hierarchy may attempt to ignore the rising din as and when they prevail at the EGM. Yet this disquiet is not going away; and nor should it.

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