Alan Pattullo: MacGregor left facing a tough choice

No matter how he votes today, Ross County owner Roy MacGregor will be unable to keep everyone happy. Picture: SNS
No matter how he votes today, Ross County owner Roy MacGregor will be unable to keep everyone happy. Picture: SNS
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BRIGHT, vibrant, exciting and entertaining.

These are the adjectives the Right Honorable Henry McLeish used to describe the future if – and only if – Ross County owner Roy MacGregor does what a succession of chairmen have stressed is the right and honorable thing to do and votes yes to league reconstruction later today at Hampden Park, thereby transferring the responsibility into the hands of the Scottish Football League clubs at the end of this week.

This open letter from McLeish, urging football’s power brokers to deliver Scottish football from a “deepening sense of frustration and pessimism”, emerged yesterday, just hours before an absorbing Scottish Cup semi-final tie between Dundee United and Celtic at Hampden Park, and just a day after a yet more thrilling encounter between Hibernian and Falkirk had also served up seven goals.

Yesterday’s clash, which Celtic won 4-3, was the fourth cup game in succession at Hampden that had seen multiple goals scored, with last month’s League Cup final – won by St Mirren, remember, for the first time in their history – set to live long in the memory. Both St Mirren and Hearts treated us to five goals on that occasion while the Paisley club also overcame Celtic 3-2 in another thrilling semi-final 
encounter.

But where were we? Oh yes, Scottish football’s current dire, impoverished state. We have come to bury the Scottish game, not to praise it. It is in the doldrums, we are told by those such as Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive. And Lawwell, like MacGregor, is an honorable man. He has underlined the need to opt for the only antidote to Scottish football’s ills that is available, otherwise the game will endure a long, painful death.

MacGregor woke yesterday to find it was Lawwell’s turn to lean on him to vote for leagues of 12, 12 and 18, thereby activating all the other attractions inserted into the package, such as one governing league body and play-offs. The trouble is, MacGregor could well have another idea of what is right and honorable; he might believe that the right and honorable thing to do is to listen to the views of Ross County’s supporters, his club’s lifeblood, those who have already informed him that they are not in favour of the new league reconstruction proposals. He might take heed of the concerns of those clubs who are not welcoming the thought of being bundled up in a rump league of 18 teams; after all, Ross County have not been in the Premier League long enough to forget where they have come from.

He might do this. Indeed, it is expected that this is what he will do. But then Lawwell has made a last-ditch attempt to make MacGregor recognise that it isn’t all about Ross County, it’s about the greater good of Scottish football, and while the Highlands club might be punching above their weight now, MacGregor should observe the “cuts and bruises” on those officials from SPL clubs who have been seeking to find a new way for several years now, and are presently sitting in a mire of debt. Jobs are on the line, MacGregor was told in a rare public utterance by the Aberdeen owner Stewart Milne last week. And Stewart Milne, too, is an honorable man, as is McLeish, whose open letter has followed up his painstaking review of the game, delivered in two parts over the course of recent years. And McLeish, being a former politician, is most definitely an honorable man.

Bright, vibrant, exciting and entertaining – this is the future the former First Minister has promised us, if we go for 12-12-18, which isn’t what he advised in his review, where he came to the conclusion that a top tier of ten teams is the only answer.

Those of us who were at the national stadium yesterday, and who had the task of describing another seven-goal extravaganza, were reaching for words such as bright, vibrant, exciting and entertaining, as Celtic eventually won out 4-3 against a United side that included a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old, while a Falkirk team, the majority of whom are in their early twenties and younger, cantered into a 3-0 lead against Hibs on Saturday. It is surely disingenuous to say Scottish football will be saddled with a future “that is not worth contemplating”, something McLeish proposes will happen should MacGregor join forces with St Mirren, and stymie the reconstruction proposals today, courtesy of the 11-1 voting system.

What’s the bold MacGregor to do? For the majority of his peers in the SPL, to be bold is to rescue Scottish football from penury by delivering more so-called meaningful games to the table, by dint of the contentious split into three leagues of eight after 22 games, when the middle tier’s teams will all have their points totals re-set to zero.

Ross County fans have told MacGregor they don’t much like this idea, and MacGregor himself has made the point that his side would have ended up in the middle eight had the league split after 22 games this season. Currently, Ross County lie in fifth place, and have a chance of qualifying for Europe for the first time in their history.

More meaningful games will apparently bring Scottish football back from the brink, hence the creation of a middle tier, where promotion and relegation issues will be fought out. But two meaningful games this weekend, while undeniably thrilling, were watched in a half-full national stadium. It isn’t meaning that is the be-all and end-all, it is quality, it is price, it is convenience, it is not having games kicking off at just after midday. But then this is how the broadcasters want it, and it is the broadcasters, not Scottish football fans, whom the new league set-up is designed to please, that much should be clear.

So spare a thought for MacGregor, a quiet, dignified man who has kept his counsel in a week when he has found himself in the once unlikely position of being stalked by reporters wanting him to declare his hand to them. On his way home up the 
A9 today, MacGregor will either be pursued by a scrum of those such as Lawwell shaking their fists at him, or, depending how he has voted, he will be steeling himself to face the wrath of a mob of angry Ross County fans.

If there’s a thought to make you feel better on a Monday morning, it is the Ross County chairman’s schedule, which can be summed up as: morning, vote on Scottish football’s future: afternoon, hide. After all is said and done, Roy MacGregor must decide for himself what he feels is the right and honorable thing to do. Yet more threats of imminent Armageddon certainly don’t help.