It was only last week that a headline on the Scottish Professional Football League’s website read: “New partnership for SPFL & Trust”.
Sadly, it turned out to be an announcement of the SPFL’s charitable trust sponsoring the Challenge Cup and not a new initiative to repair the wounds opened up earlier this year when the 2019/20 season was ended early as the pandemic stopped play.
Back then, the decision taken by the 42 clubs to bring the season to a close brought anger and acrimony after Dundee’s hugely controversial deciding vote relegated Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer.
Hearts’ venomous social media post after they dismantled Dundee in the opening match of the Championship last week showed that grudges are, unsurprisingly, still held.
On Friday, the SPFL launched an attempt to avoid any repeat of the ill-feeling and in-fighting that marked last April’s decision making. The league body is consulting clubs on a move granting the SPFL board powers to manage the impact of coronavirus on matches, the league and titles, promotion and relegation.
“If you can’t trust each other then trust us,” seems to be the suggestion. The answer will have a monumental impact on what happens if competition has to be stopped early, and if it doesn’t.
The governing body has asked its members for broader powers to deal with the pandemic before and been denied, so what’s changed?
The SPFL say “several” clubs have changed their position since a clear majority of the 42 clubs voted against the proposal last time.
It’s understandable that events might have prompted a fresh look at the idea. While the lower leagues have only just begun their shortened season, the Premiership has been in action since August. Of the 12 top-flight clubs, seven have already seen fixtures postponed or rearranged because of the virus and more have seen players or staff test positive or have to self-isolate.
The Premiership returned after lockdown with a set of protocols and practices to keep everyone as safe as possible and to allow for the competition to be played along with the return of the cup competitions, European games and internationals. But positive tests and postponements have seen SPFL figures look at the fixtures, the packed schedule and the finish date of May 31 with furrowed brows and decide that some action has to be taken if that isn’t to be put in jeopardy. And in taking responsibility for keeping everything on track, more powers are asked for.
The consultation document sent to clubs has a number of questions, most related to how the season could be ended early, if that unpalatable scenario was to play out. But before dealing with that big issue, there’s the immediate issue of how to deal with postponements – an issue that’s already in play.
While early postponements involving Celtic and Aberdeen were made at the government’s request, the recent situations at Kilmarnock and St Mirren have been different. Those clubs, left without enough senior players to fulfil a fixture, made a request to the league to postpone games.
The league gave their consent and at the same time announced investigations into the circumstances. If the clubs were to be found to be lacking in their anti-Covid regime then they would face disciplinary action and could forfeit the match.
The SPFL is now asking clubs: “Would you support the SPFL Board being given a specific power to impose a 3-0 defeat on any club that is unwilling or unable to fulfil a League fixture, so as to expedite the completion of the League programme of fixtures?.”
“So as to expedite the completion of the League programme.” The implication is clear. Finishing the competition is paramount, even if a series of games are decided in the boardroom and not on the pitch.
Without investigation and hearings, results would be handed down and points allocated that would have a huge bearing on the final league positions and all the consequences that come with them. Even now, if the postponed matches so far had all been marked down as default 3-0 losses then the league table would be unrecognisable from its current state.
Though the idea of a results page littered and distorted with asterisks is a gloomy one, it’s nothing compared to the SPFL’s nightmare scenario, where they would once again find themselves unable to complete fixtures in the allotted time.
One of the questions they put to clubs is simple: “Is it too early to take binding decisions now about the various issues that could arise at the end of a curtailed season?”. In other words: what can we do to avoid knife-edge votes when there are titles and relegations on the line?
Once the issue of what constitutes enough of a season to count has been answered (and members are being asked their views on that percentage and if a short season could be voided) there’s the question of who decides to call an end to competition.
The doomsday scenario is being discussed, as SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster says, “before we get to the situation where league positions understandably influence the individual approach of club”. Some will argue that ship has sailed, if it ever existed, but the league body wants to put that power in the hands of the board.
The SPFL board, in addition to chairman Murdo McLennan, chief executive Doncaster and independent director Karyn McCluskey is currently comprised of representatives from St Johnstone, Hamilton Accies and Celtic, Alloa and Dunfermline, Brechin City and Clyde.
As a representative board it’s pretty representative with figures from clubs throughout the divisions who could and most likely will involved at either the prize end or the trap door in their respective leagues. For that very reason it’s hard to see how any major decision could be reached without accusations of self-interest being made, regardless of how pure motives may be.
Clubs may have been happy to hand power to colleagues to look after their interests in the normal scheme of things but are less likely to hand them an axe and put their neck on the line.
That may have been the reason the previous attempt to expand the powers of the Hampden boardroom was denied but the prospect of another civil war in the middle of a pandemic may have changed minds in the months since.
Trust will be key. Not every outcome will be decided by the players this season, that much is clear, so who clubs place their faith in might be the deciding factor in more than just another Hampden vote.