“A ludicrous situation entirely of the SPFL’s making”- 17/04/15

May 24, 2017

For the first time in my life, I was inspired to write an angry email and subsequently formulate a blog post on events within Scottish Football. This weeks’ farcical Championship fixture saga has stirred up feelings of bemusement, hilarity and despair at how our game is governed, and how even the most simple exercises in public relations are mishandled by the SPFL.  My initial ire covered a number of topics, primarily concerning:

  1. The clear favouritism that seemed to be held towards Rangers.
  2. The utter disregard for the remaining fans who have decided to invest in football tickets, rather than in the latest BT Sport or Sky Sports package.
  3. The utterly arrogant and detached approach from the SPFL to the dismayed reaction of clubs and fans, seemingly indicative of a moribund establishment, incapable of portraying the Scottish game in anywhere near a positive light.

As it is, my original diatribe is now largely irrelevant, with the debacle reaching a relatively satisfying conclusion a mere 24 hours after its initial eruption. The topic has now been thoroughly covered throughout the Scottish media, with Wednesday’s Sportsound podcast providing a particularly comprehensive and entertaining ‘as it happened’ account of events. However, a number of concerning issues remain pertinent in the aftermath of the SPFL’s embarrassment, as well as a potential ray of hope from how both Edinburgh clubs reacted to it.

Looking back on my writing from Wednesday, I can now say with hindsight that any accusations of out and out bias towards Rangers are probably overheated. It would seem in this instance that severe incompetence was the driving force; when a Sevco-friendly decision is lambasted by both Chick Young and Stuart McCall, it’s unlikely that the machinations of a grand conspiracy are afoot. Nevertheless, the issue highlighted the fears held by many fans that the establishment will take whatever steps they think can get away with to help Rangers over the line. There seems to be a tacit acceptance amongst many (from governing bodies, to Sky, to the manager of the national team) that the SPFL should ‘do what they can’ to ensure that Rangers are back in the Premiership next season. Particularly notable has been Celtic’s silence on the matter. As a team who have bored themselves to death through their stifling of competition, their board and fans are as restless for a return to Old Firm status quo as any TV network executive.  With this being the case, a certain level of paranoia can be expected when fixtures are changed in such a fashion which would seem to explicitly tip the balance in Rangers’ favour.

Nevertheless, whilst accusations of out and out corruption might be wide of the mark, surely the charge of utter incompetence is far more damaging. Many have questioned whether Neil Doncaster’s position is at all tenable after this week’s public humiliation; sadly, I can see him remaining in his posts for the foreseeable future.  When STV can effortlessly summon a list of his most memorable blunders, most of which have occurred in the space of a couple of years, it seems unlikely that his latest fankle will be the straw to break the camel’s back. In general, I am deeply concerned about the sway with which TV networks hold over football in general today; however, in this instance I can only imagine the bemusement from Sky executives as Doncaster dithered between submission and confused indecision about this fixture change in the space of a day. Although the correct resolution was eventually made, the tone of its announcement was embarassing in its simpering gratitude towards Sky for providing the SPFL with something approaching coherent decision making.

Most concerning was Doncaster’s earlier offer for Championship clubs to sort the mess out themselves by deciding amongst themselves when they’d like to play. Aside from an absolutely impotent lack of leadership, this suggestion had the potential to exacerbate this fixture absurdity to a whole new level. Publicly implying that Hibernian were out to cause trouble through their complaints, and hiding behind the fact that an unnamed club had registered their preference to play on Saturday was a clear attempt to shift the blame from the SPFL’s deficiencies towards potential bickering between clubs. If Falkirk (for example) had decided that the provisions they had made for fan hospitality on Saturday May the 2nd were unalterable, then they would have been well within their rights not to partake in the circus of other teams shifting fixtures to suit their own needs. One can imagine a scenario whereby Hibs could request their fixture to take place an hour after Rangers and Hearts had concluded their game, putting the advantage in their court. As petty as it sounds, this seemed to be the situation which Doncaster was inviting.

As it stands, both Leeann Dempster and Ann Budge played an absolute blinder with their statements throughout the week. It would seem largely in thanks to these two that the situation has reached such a quick and sensible conclusion. Hearts in particular are to be commended for registering their disapproval on a decision which didn’t actually have a great effect on their playing staff (although, as always, the spectre of fans being treated as a secondary consideration raised its ugly head). Amongst the various press releases and interviews which took place throughout the week, Dempster’s final word on the matter’s resolution is worthy of particular praise. In no uncertain terms, the SPFL are lambasted for their absolutely cack handed conduct and transparent attempt to absolve themselves from responsibility. It is here, in the actions and words of Hibs and Hearts’ figureheads, where some positivity can be garnered.

Without wishing to amplify any patronising emphasis on gender, there would seem to be a clear parallel between a new balance of power amongst Edinburgh teams, and the political shift in popularity towards progressive voices in the run up to the General Election. The clear headed, determined voice of progressive reason is a stark contrast to the bumbling entitlement amongst ‘the blazers’ at Hampden; one can imagine Doncaster’s furrowed brow as he attempted to digest the public support for this series of condemning broadsides. Previous critics of the Old Firm and footballing establishment have been painted as opportunistic troublemakers, keen to take advantage of controversy to curry favour with fans. At best, chairmen of smaller teams who have spoken out against the Old Firm duopoly have been disarmingly portrayed in the media as lovably cantankerous eccentrics, such as in the case of the sadly departed Turnball Hutton. It is refreshing for both Edinburgh clubs to have executives who will protect their clubs’ interests in an eloquent and veritable manner, particularly when dealing with an old boys’ network which seems to have drained the Scottish game of any self confidence or marketing potential.

Some Hibs fans have expressed unease at the potential for Edinburgh teams to stand united in such off field manners, with any perceived ‘cosying up’ to Hearts seeming particularly uncomfortable after the events of the last five years. I, for one, hope that our on-field rivalry will remain as determinedly vicious, ill tempered and petty as always – and can’t see this changing in a month of Sauzees anyway.However, it is off the field where both teams can be seen as pioneering the cause for a brighter and more competent management of the game as a whole. Over a short period of time, both Budge and Dempster have attempted to ensure that their clubs are institutions which are a benefit to their wider communities, and which can be a source of pride amongst their fans again. A willingness to set aside footballing rivalries in the face of a lumbering and self destructive bureaucracy can only be seen as a positive, not just for Hibs and Hearts, but for the Scottish game as a whole.