SPFL’s handling of season’s end will fuel grievances for years

Coronavirus is a massive challenge for Scottish football but that doesn't excuse SPFL management.

Premiership: SPFL called the season earlier this week. SNS
Premiership: SPFL called the season earlier this week.

“Football is for the fans. It can be the greatest game in the world but if there are no people to watch it, it becomes nothing. The fans are the lifeblood of the game.

Jock Stein

The current brouhaha surrounding Scottish football is probably unparalleled in the lives of those who follow it.

A glance at emotive headlines, fans forums and club statements all chart allegations of procedural skulduggery at the SPFL, of conspiracies in the corridors of power evidenced by a dossier which has been described simultaneously as dynamite and embarrassing.

The bellicose rhetoric comes in the threats of legal action which might yet materialise. Never has the soap opera of the beautiful game been more in danger of drowning in a lather of indignation.

One fact, however, is often overlooked in the hot house of the ‘fitba steamie’. The catalyst for this crisis is a pandemic, a national health emergency. The starting point in examining the often tortuous timeline of claim and counter-claim is to see it fundamentally through that prism.

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No template has been designed for authorities trying to manage the perfect storm brought on by the game closing down and uncertainty about when it might resume. The necessary response to save lives put the SPFL in a pickle, not a carefully hatched plan to push through hidden agendas.

To this onlooker, far removed from the world of sports journalism, a number of factors seem apparent.

First, on ending the football season, it did not matter what route emerged as the preferred option. A number of clubs would have been unhappy no matter what, for this was an exercise that guaranteed division. The very process of taking a decision guaranteed a split and propelled an acute sense of crisis.

Second, every club acts out of self-interest and it is make-believe to pretend otherwise. The notion that any club is hard-wired with DNA that tilts them from self-interest to a position of what’s best for the game as a whole is nonsense, if only because directors would be failing in a duty to protect their companies. If you are not in the self-interest game you shouldn’t be running a club.

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Once you accept that starting point, a lot of the protest and positioning becomes nothing more than self-interest dressed in other clothes. I do not blame a single club for arguing what’s best for them. They would be fools to do otherwise.

Third, it is indisputable that unfairness has resulted from the manner of ending the season, particularly if clubs are being relegated when it was arithmetically possible to survive if the remaining games were played.

There was a clash in this narrative between fairness and necessity, as a clear majority of clubs saw it. Necessity trumped fairness as the least bad option. The fact the process towards the endgame seemed hopelessly managed will incubate grievances for years to come and provide a granite base on which to rest endless conspiracies.

The shambles of ending the season has put individuals and procedures in the spotlight. Managing it without any fallout was always an attempt at the impossible. That should not however excuse the twists that rendered the SPFL a laughing stock.

The clubs have voted against an independent inquiry into the decision-making process but I cannot believe that Rangers FC will allow that to be the last word. Some serious bridge-building seems inevitable. Whether that can be done without a change in personnel is another matter.

If the ending of the current season has been messy it might be as nothing compared to what lies ahead.

Many clubs are offering refunds for games that weren’t played, further straining the bank balance. Season tickets are being offered for sale for next season when it is not certain exactly what that ticket is buying.  It seems likely that spectators back in grounds will be a New Year wish than a reality come August.

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Talk of league reconstruction hangs in the air, as does the possibility of clubs going out of business. All the time, the games much maligned legislators have to meet the demands of a broadcasting contract and the timeline for the start of next season’s European competitions.

The pictures from last weekend’s Bundesliga serve as testimony to Jock Stein’s view that without fans football is nothing. Viewing Borussia Dortmund was like watching a game down the local public park.

It is timely that Scotland Tonight should give over this Thursday’s programme to examining this crisis. Raman Bhardwaj is speaking to a legislator, administration expert, premiership manager, club-managing director, supporters’ group and a whole host of others in an attempt to bring much needed clarity.

Scotland Tonight is broadcast at 7.30pm on Thursday, May 21, on STV.

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