Are SFA Equipped to Enter Reconstruction Row?

The words “don’t worry the SFA will sort it out” are not exactly the most reassuring that have ever been uttered.  That, however, is the position that Scottish football finds itself in after the latest debacle to engulf our game ended on Monday with the rejection of the proposed 12-12-18 reconstruction by the SPL. The proposals were always deeply unpopular with fans and two SPL chairmen found the integrity to listen to their supporters, leading to a wave of recrimination from others who were interested purely in the survival of their own, in many cases, poorly run clubs. Now the SFA have suggested that the leagues should invite them to sort it all out, but are they really any better equipped to do this than the shambolic SPL?

There is so much wrong with the game, and those running it, that it’s impossible to cover in one article so I’m going to focus on two main issues. First is the idea of an SPL 2 breakaway which is now being mooted by a number of 1st Division clubs. The second topic to cover is the idea that the SFA entering the fray will automatically improve matters and take the decision out of the hands of those who have failed to deliver.

It is highly unlikely that a drive to create an SPL 2 by 1st Division clubs will be successful. It combines, from the SPL point of view, all the least desirable parts of the original proposals, like income redistribution, with none of the benefits like a single governing body, increased interest and therefore income and sponsorship. The SPL clubs wanted this change to get away from the toxicity of the SPL brand. They were doing this to generate more money for themselves. Giving some of it away to 1st Division clubs was a necessary concession to get the changes through, not a main driver.

It is no surprise that the two clubs to vote against the 12-12-18 proposals were two of the more financially stable in the SPL. Stewart Gilmour of St Mirren expressed his surprise that he and Roy McGregor of Ross County didn’t have more support from what he called ‘community clubs’. He is right to be surprised but in the end the financial carrot that was dangled was too much for many. The bullying and cajoling within the SPL does not come from these clubs but they allowed themselves to be bullied and cajoled. Many of them had reservations about 12-12-18 and much of what went with it but they were unable to, as Gilmour stated, “be honest about it”. Instead they left it to Gilmour and McGregor to take a stand.

It should come as no surprise that despite not even being allowed a vote on the future of the game, some managed to blame Rangers for St Mirren, in particular, voting against the hastily drawn up and utterly flawed proposals. The simple truth is that St Mirren and Ross County could not only identify huge problems with the proposals but also didn’t need the increased revenue which the SPL hoped would be generated as much as some of the other clubs. That Neil Doncaster could not even quantify the possible financial benefit did not help. 

The SPL’s plan was simple and was betrayed somewhat by Doncaster’s talk of ‘increased inventory’. TV revenue is likely to be down from what was budgeted next year for the SPL. Sponsorship income certainly will be. Gates are also plummeting. Many of those SPL clubs who have managed to retain their gates at a reasonable level have only done so through massive price reductions on season tickets and concessions. Conservative estimates would suggest that every SPL club stands to lose around £500k of revenue.

Doncaster’s plan was to use the ‘excitement’ of the middle 8 league promotion and relegation to try to sell more games to TV and also to secure new sponsorship for what they would have portrayed as a completely new league. One rumoured potential sponsor was, for obvious reasons.

The issue that the SPL has is that such is the lack of interest in their product and such is the negative publicity surrounding their shambolic handling of the Rangers issue, that sponsors are simply not that interested. This is another reason that SPL 2 is likely to be a non-starter. A complete rebranding was required and would have been delivered with a single governing body under 12-12-18. Again however, Gilmour gave the game away somewhat on this topic. The body being created was simply a rebranding exercise for the SPL. They wanted to retain the 11-1 vote on many topics and indeed Gilmour has indicated they were actually adding items to that list. The SPL drafted the new rules, they would have retained their power on the board of the new body and the same people who have brought Scottish football to this point would have remained in charge of the sinking ship. Gilmour also made it clear that he felt that SFL clubs were being naive if they felt that they would be able to effect meaningful change once they were absorbed by the SPL. He should know what he is talking about given the bullying and pressure he has been subjected to over the past few months on the topic of reconstruction.

I would urge people to listen to Gilmour on the BBC podcast at this link. . It is illuminating stuff and also hints at the problem that the SFA will have if they are going to mediate in this matter. They have released a statement suggesting in strong terms that the SPL and SFL suspend their rules to allow the SFA to step in and move things forward. On the face of it this seems like a good idea because the clubs have shown they are too riven by self-interest to be trusted to act properly. However, the SFA have exactly the same problem. They have a lame duck CEO in Stewart Regan who hardly any fan in Scotland supports or trusts, for varying reasons. They also have a Professional Game Board (PGB) made up of several of the same characters or clubs who oversaw the reconstruction mess of the past 6 months. Doncaster is there, Celtic are there, Ralph Topping is there, Hibs are there. There are a couple of SFA men in Alan McRae and Campbell Ogilvie but the composition is overwhelmingly similar to those who have already failed to push change forward.

If the PGB were to be given the power to oversee this matter then it would simply be a case of handing it back to the same cast of characters and crossing our fingers that they get it right this time. They do not deserve a second chance.  That is not to say the SFA should not get involved. The idea of mediation is a good one but it should only be overseen by the SFA. They have indicated that they would include some independent voices in any mediation but this is not enough. The whole process should be independent and only facilitated by the SFA.

By all means allow the SPL, SFL and others to make representations to these independent people but let’s not make the mistake of handing the power back to those who have already failed to exercise it properly. The media have a role here. Many journalists have been rightly critical of the SPL approach and they must keep the pressure on to ensure meaningful and fair change is delivered. Despite SFA claims of transparency, they have been anything but since Regan came to power. Real transparency should be a minimum requirement of the continuance of this process.

Can we allow people like Stewart Milne to try to force change through for their own clubs by launching public tirades against those who don’t agree with them? Milne’s club Aberdeen might be in a woeful financial position but it is no excuse for the vitriol we have seen from him towards Gilmour. These clubs are in such a poor position that they can’t see past their own need for income, secured at any cost. Aberdeen have already announced that they won’t be opening part of their new stand next season.  Instead they will be using it for fans to display banners and have attempted to suggest they are doing this “to create a better match day atmosphere”. One wonders if they will even manage to fill it with banners. The decision needs to be taken out of the hands of these desperate chairmen and handed to people who can look objectively at a proper solution.

Finally, let’s drop this charade of excluding Rangers from talks on the future of the game. If the SFA become involved then league rules on associate memberships or exclusion from votes are no longer relevant. Having a situation where you discuss critical changes to the game but exclude the biggest club in the country is farcical. Rangers should not have undue influence on the process but they must be given the opportunity to participate as one of the major generators of income for, and interest in, the Scottish game. Perhaps those who have excluded Rangers are now reaching the point where they realise the stupidity of their actions over the past 18 months. If not then they might not have a club to worry about by next year. 

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