DEPARTING Scottish Premier League chairman Ralph Topping has stepped in to the reconstruction debate to deliver a strong defence of Neil Doncaster, after the chief executive had his worth questioned by St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour.
The fall-out has continued after Monday’s no vote, when the resistance of two out of 12 clubs stymied the entire reconstruction project at the first hurdle.
Margaret Thatcher’s re-working of the prayer of St Francis has been often-quoted in recent days: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. The opposite has occurred where the SPL is concerned of late.
As recently as January, all 12 club chairmen and owners announced they had unanimously agreed to further explore the 12-12-18 league proposal, with all that it entailed, including wealth redistribution. Three months later, such harmony has given way to very public discord, with Roy MacGregor, the Ross County chairman, and Gilmour having joined forces to block change.
Topping struggles to understand the reason, particularly as a concession to the divisive 11-1 voting structure for league reconstruction was unexpectedly offered, meaning that change could be voted through again after only two years.
Now there is the threat of clubs boycotting certain boardrooms before and after games as the SPL recommences following a weekend break. Topping, who was yesterday taking a brief break from his day job as chief executive of William Hill to speak to The Scotsman, has been angered by the personal nature of the insults aimed at Doncaster, including those from within the SPL itself. Given Gilmour’s recent comments, it should be obvious to whom Topping is referring, even though he declines to name the club.
“I don’t mind people acting out of principle but I don’t like people trying to deflect attention from themselves by focusing on the chief executive, who carries the support of the majority of the people around the meeting table,” said Topping. “There may be one club who have consistently criticised the chief executive without articulating properly where they think that chief executive is going wrong.
“That is one of the problems you have. People who are not articulate or straight enough to describe what they are looking for and why they don’t think they are getting it.”
Doncaster does not have a vote, points out Topping. “He is almost like a company secretary, because he does not have power,” he says. “He is up here, with wife and two kids, and he has to put up with that nonsense, when he should be supported. It should be clearly recognised that he has the support of the biggest clubs in Scotland – and I would say 11 out of 12 clubs support Neil Doncaster.”
The actions of two men in particular dismayed Topping as he looked on from his chairman’s seat on Monday. He has time for both Gilmour and MacGregor personally but, when it came to the business of saving Scottish football, he felt that they let themselves – and the game – down.
He was confident that something he refers to as “the Frank Haffey proposal” would succeed in bringing the clubs back together, and sweep away the remaining resistance. Haffey, now forever cast as a hapless Scottish goalkeeper, conceded nine goals against England in 1961, with Scotland managing to net only three times in reply. “The sad reality for Scottish football is that the voting structure on league structure certainly has to change,” says Topping. “And this was a massive concession by Celtic Football Club and by Aberdeen Football Club.”
Both Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive and Aberdeen owner Stewart Milne were taken into a side-room on Monday and implored to abandon their resistance to this – which they did. “It was a wonderful opportunity, which has fallen by the wayside,” says Topping. “I do not think it will ever come back.
“Unless there is a consensus you have no change and nothing is going to change,” he adds. “I remember the 9-3 with Frank Haffey being a disaster for Scotland. Well, this is another disaster for Scotland – not accepting the 9-3.”
According to Topping, the reason for Gilmour’s opposition remained “imprecise”. He added: “About the only thing that was not raised [by St Mirren] was the North Korea situation”.
As chief executive of a business that recently posted a £227.7m profit, Topping is well-qualified to pass comment on the boardroom behaviour that he witnessed this week. “Roy MacGregor is one of the nicest guys in football, he is a smart guy and an intelligent guy as well,” said Topping. “The fact of life around a boardroom in a business is that you go with a consensus. If you have ten colleagues on a board and they are saying this is the right direction then, in a business, in a big company, you never have a vote – you go with a consensus.
“The consequences are what we are seeing now,” he adds. “We are seeing fractious behaviour, disjointed responses.
“It is not quite civil war, but we are seeing antipathy, and people talking about not going into directors’ boxes. All that is wrong. You have to manage to the consensus. And you have to be prepared to modernise and change. That was the biggest disappointment – there was the flexibility to change in two years’ time if it wasn’t deemed to be working.”
Topping has already announced that he will not be seeking re-election at the SPL general meeting in July. He is departing with some understandable frustration but he has not yet abandoned all hope when it comes to the thorny issue of restructuring the game. “I think it would be hard to get around a table but not impossible,” he says. “But I would not like to see relationships deteriorate further, because then it would be impossible.”
“I think it is a shame there is so much soreness being exhibited publicly but, hey, that’s football,” he added.
But football is not just about the SPL and, although some are relieved that the “middle eight” concept has been shelved, Topping points to the William Hill-sponsored Scottish Cup as illustrating how exhilarating it is for both fans and broadcasters when games are invested with meaning. That, he reflected, was what commended the middle eight proposal.
That pair of thrilling Scottish Cup semi-finals also helped reaffirm Topping’s faith in the game – and could have gone a long way to earning the tournament a further financial boost.
“We are delighted with the Scottish Cup because it consists of meaningful matches and we are putting a lot into the community. I would like to think that that will continue long after I leave the position of chief executive, which won’t be for a while,” says Topping.
That hints at William Hill extending their sponsorship of the Cup after the current deal expires next year. It is a much-needed boost after another trying week for the Scottish game.