Who watches the Scotsmen?

I read with bewilderment, this lunchtime, a statement by the board of Clyde FC which offered some insight into the thinking of the SPL and SFA on the car-crash which is ‘the Rangers issue’.

Laid out clearly, for all to see, is the incredible blind-spot of the SPL as a commercial organisation – alongside the staggering impotence of the SFA as a governing body. Allow me to explain these two statements in a little more detail.

The SPL conundrum or ‘You can’t have it both ways’

It would appear from Clyde’s account that Neil Doncaster, SPL CEO, presented the SFL clubs with a rather crude Hobson’s choice. The Scottish game is, according to Mr Doncaster, poised for financial meltdown unless the ‘Son of Rangers’ is admitted to the first division of the SFL; admit them or accept the consequences (to the tune of £16m in lost television revenue and sponsorship monies). The consequences, in this case, also include the withholding of the £2m ‘settlement agreement’ which the SPL is committed to provide annually to the SFL.

Mr Doncaster’s case was simple: football is a business, the clubs and leagues are businesses… so act like it. We cannot wave goodbye to this amount of revenue.

I have to say, it’s a very reasonable position for a business. But there’s a problem with this outlook, because as Clyde have noted,  Mr Doncaster has not followed the reasoning through to its ultimate extent.

SPL clubs – and increasingly, SFL clubs – have recently borne the brunt of a fan-power tsunami. Supporters of all stripes have contacted their clubs to make their feelings known about ‘the Rangers issue’; there is no doubt that a significant majority are opposed to any preferential fudge in favour of a ‘Son of Rangers’ club. As Dundee Utd discovered several weeks ago, the strength of this feeling is great enough to have perilous consequences for season ticket sales.

Now, there is a school of thought which says that Scottish Football is more than a business: it’s an institution, a collection of clubs which transcend P&L accounts and balance sheets to existing as keystones for their respective communities. If one believes this synopsis, then it might be reasonable to assert that irrespective of how ‘the Rangers issue’ is settled, fans will just keep coming back anyway – because what would their lives and identities be without Dundee Utd/Aberdeen/Hibs etc? Perhaps this is behind Mr Doncaster’s decision to ignore the implications of concerted fan action on the clubs’ collective bottom lines.

Perhaps.

But one thing is sure: you can’t have it both ways, Mr Doncaster. Either the clubs are businesses which are at the mercy of their customers, or they are institutions which will withstand any financial onslaught by weight of historical inertia. They can’t be one when considering the sponsorship which pays your wages, then another when debating whether to give their fans the finger.

The SFA debacle, or ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’

The SFA has a clear role to play in Scottish Football. It’s notionally the governing body, invested by FIFA with the power to license clubs and leagues, sanction transfers, run the national team and generally safeguard the health of the game in this country.

Over the past few months, a picture has emerged of an organisation that:

  • Holds deeply conflicted interests, particularly in their continued employment of Campbell Ogilvie, a man actually implicated in the Rangers EBT scandal
  • May already have known that Rangers did not meet the financial requirements for League competition last season, but allowed them to compete in any case
  • Is liable to be overruled by FIFA with regard to sanctioning Rangers for seeking legal redress outside of sport, should it fail to impose appropriate punishments

With this as the backdrop, the SFA appear to have decided that inaction is the best policy. While they have the power to simply state that the ‘Son of Rangers’ club will be refused SFA membership unless it enters the third division, they are paralysed by fear of what will happen if they exercise that power; in truth, they are probably also paralysed by fear of what will happen if they fail to do so.

Our governing body is unwilling to govern. This effectively makes Scottish football a ‘wild west’ environment, where the outlaw with the biggest gun gets to set the agenda, as the sheriff weeps in his office, staring at the badge in his shaking hand and swigging from a bottle of warm whiskey.

The buck accelerates

The man with the biggest gun, currently, is Neil Doncaster… or so he thinks.

That’s the reason why Mr Doncaster has handily passed responsibility (for what he sees as Scottish Football’s financial meltdown in prospect) to the SFL clubs. It is they who will be obliged to make the decision on which his future likely hangs, they who will ‘take the heat’ – a position which also suits the cowering SFA – and in light of the official rejection by SPL clubs of a ‘Son of Rangers’entry into the league, it seems their decision will be a final one. Doncaster clearly believes that his implicit threats will seal the deal in favour of a first division entry, but I disagree with him.

One huge, £16m gun is impressive to brandish, certainly – but is it more or less deadly than the massed ranks of firepower represented by season ticket holders walking away all over the country?

In such a firefight, my money is on the fans. The Scottish game will survive in some form as long as an appetite for competitive football exists amongst Scots; poison the product with corruption, demonstrate that the leagues are anything but truly ‘competitive’ and that appetite will wither.

What good is a TV deal, when no-one wants to watch?

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