Aidan Smith: SPFL fixture farce was avoidable

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JUST about the only good thing you can say about Scottish football’s beaks right now is that they have acted quickly to face down the dark threat to sporting integrity posed by their plans for the season’s denouement. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Hibernian, along with Hearts, had protested when it was revealed that the latter’s final game with Rangers would take place 24 hours after the official end to the Championship season, thereby handing the Ibrox club a potential advantage in the race for second place.

SPFL secretary Ian Blair and chief executive Neil Doncaster are all smiles. Picture: SNS

SPFL secretary Ian Blair and chief executive Neil Doncaster are all smiles. Picture: SNS

Rangers would have taken the field at Tynecastle on Sunday, 3 May, knowing that all of Hibs’ best efforts – and those of Queen of the South for that matter – were spent. If the Gers needed a draw to be runners-up – thus avoiding extra play-offs – they would know this. If they needed a win they would know this, too.

Then maybe Hibs would have been at the mercy of their internecine nearest-and-dearest, forced to watch helplessly on TV – because TV wanted the Tynecastle game and what it wants it usually gets – while desperately hoping for a favour in the form of a barnstorming performance by their city rivals who have already been declared champions and look like they are now on their holidays.

But common sense has prevailed. The Hearts-Rangers game will still be televised – of course – only it will be the day before, 2 May. The kick-off will be 12:15pm – the football equivalent of pop radio’s graveyard shift, because this is where Scottish football is accommodated – and all the other Championship fixtures scheduled for the Saturday, including Hibs and not forgetting Queens, will commence at exactly the same time.

What a farce. You couldn’t make it up. Then again, we’re talking about the care and well-being of Scottish football, so maybe you could. How typical that the SPFL stumble across a thrilling way of concluding the leagues and then almost blow it.

How typical that the SPFL stumble across a thrilling way of concluding the leagues and then almost blow it.

Play-offs aren’t new, of course, but such was the final-day excitement and dread last season – and especially at Easter Road when Hamilton Accies came back from being 2-0 down after their home leg to squeeze past Hibs in a penalty shoot-out – that it seemed the atom had just been cracked. One dunt of the heid from Neil Doncaster and incredible wonders had burst forth.

This season, though, there would have been outrage within Scotland and guffaws from everywhere else if the play-offs had been corrupted by one team having knowledge of what was needed in their last game by dint of a TV network’s whim and compliance from the administrators.

The official statement from the SPFL on Wednesday night, expressing astonishment at the protests from the Edinburgh clubs, was staggering in its doltishness. “In response to recent criticisms of the fixture scheduling… it is not clear to us why this has caused so much surprise,” they said. “This is a key game in the Championship season and will inevitably attract huge interest from fans around the world.”

The subtext of these remarks seemed to be: “We’re getting some money for this match – shut up and get on with it.” The SPFL went on say it was “unreasonable” to expect all the other games to move so they happened on the same day, which kind of ignored the fact they were all originally scheduled to take place simultaneously.

“For the avoidance of doubt,” the statement continued, “we have had no request from Hibernian FC to move its fixture.” Hibs’ final game, of course, is away to Falkirk. It really isn’t theirs to tamper with. “While we regret any inconvenience to supporters caused by rescheduled fixtures,” the SPFL concluded, “the circumstances surrounding the matches on the weekend of 2 May are in no way unusual.”

As I say, staggering. The beaks owe a debt of gratitude to Leeann Dempster at Hibs and Hearts’ Ann Budge for bringing them to their senses, otherwise Scottish football could have ended up a laughing stock. Honestly, we could have been right up there with leagues which, with a few games left, split right in two.

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