Stuart Bathgate: MacGregor deserves our thanks for listening to customers

Ross County chairman Roy MacGregor. Picture: SNS
Ross County chairman Roy MacGregor. Picture: SNS
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IF YOU hear the sound of hoofbeats in the sky this morning, don’t worry. It will just be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, turning up to kill off Scottish football.

Or at least that’s what we were warned would happen, by those Scottish Premier League club officials who voted for the reconstruction plans. It was their way or the highway to hell. All or nothing. Nirvana or oblivion.

The league tried the same scare tactic last year, warning of dire consequences if we did not accede to their plans. Consensus was essential, they told us then and again this season. Only they had a funny notion of consensus: namely, that they would come up with a plan, and the rest of us had to consent to it.

Because ten clubs voted for the reconstruction proposals and only two against, the dissenters, St Mirren and Ross County, are being branded as anti-democratic. True enough, Stewart Gilmour and Roy MacGregor, the clubs’ respective chairmen, went against the majority in the vote.

But the last time anyone looked, there were considerably more than 12 people who had an interest in Scottish football. And who consulted them in the name of democracy? Roy MacGregor, actually: he went to a meeting with Ross County fans, listened to their views, and voted accordingly.

Did MacGregor’s fellow chairmen commend him for finding out what the paying customers of Dingwall want? Did they resolve to conduct similar exercises in Glasgow 
and Dundee, Edinburgh and Perth and all other points in between?

No. Because they listen to supporters as little as possible. Because, like SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster, they think that reaching agreement with television and radio companies is of paramount importance.

Scottish football’s business class has long regarded paying fans as an unpalatable necessity. They have a vague understanding that without supporters the game is nothing, but they would rather those supporters did not make a fuss and simply trotted along to matches no matter how daft the kick-off times were.

So it just doesn’t wash when the SPL preaches to us about democracy. And it’s equally unconvincing when, as they did at the weekend, they try to tell MacGregor that they know what’s best for the game.

True enough, MacGregor is a relative novice in SPL terms, as his club are in the top flight for the first time this season. But judging by the financial health of Ross County and of his business outside football, he knows a thing or two about how to turn a profit. How many other SPL chairmen could say the same?

The other thing about yesterday’s vote, as everyone realised within about five minutes of details being announced, was the irony of the 10-2 margin being insufficient to carry the motion. The clubs could have chosen last summer to change the rules so that 10-2 would have been enough; instead, they stuck with 11-1, so really have no-one to blame but themselves.

The real blame, however, must lie with those who insisted on the all-or-nothing approach. The ones who said everything had to be wrapped into the one motion: redistribution of revenue, play-offs, one united league, a 12-12-18, three-division set-up – all lumped together like one of those alarming all-day-breakfast-in-a-tin concoctions you can buy in some supermarkets.

There is agreement on most of those items. Ask people whether there should be one league body, for example, or whether the SPL and the Scottish Football League should remain separate bodies, and the answer will be clear. You wouldn’t just get an 11-1 majority on that issue; it would be more like 99-1. We don’t need two bodies: one is quite enough.

A question about redistributing funds could well produce a similar response. And everyone seems to be in favour of play-offs too, or at least willing to have an open discussion about how and when they should be implemented.

But it’s a different matter when it comes to two divisions of 12 teams and another of 18. And there is even less agreement when it comes to the notion of splitting the top two divisions into three eights after 22 games.

For most of us, this was the real sticking point. When Henry McLeish said change was needed, we agreed. When he and others specified the changes they had in mind, we agreed . . .

Until, that is, they told us that we needed to keep the top division the same size as it is now. And that chopping up two 12s into three eights after 22 games was essential if we were to have meaningful games.

Almost 7,000 fans took part in the National Football Survey, carried out by the Scottish Football Association in association with the SPL, SFL, and published at the start of this month. A majority of respondents – 51 per cent – wanted a top division of 16 clubs. Fifteen per cent wanted a 14-club top division, 18 per cent said they wanted 18, and three per cent wanted even more.

Just nine per cent said they wanted a top division of 12 clubs. Two per cent wanted ten clubs, and another two per cent ticked the “don’t know” box.

What was the get-out for the SPL to the news that 87 per cent of fans wanted a bigger top division than they were offering? The fact that the survey had been conducted before their own plans had been published – as if that would have made any difference.

You’ve gone to games for a number of years, talked with friends about how football could improve, thought through the various options and decided that you’d quite like a top division that had Partick Thisle, Morton, Dunfermline, Falkirk and maybe one or two more clubs in it, in addition to the existing dozen. Are you really going to change your mind just because the SPL announces that 12 clubs is the way forward?

Didn’t think so.

And was Roy MacGregor going to change his mind just because Peter Lawwell of Celtic, Stewart Milne of Aberdeen and sundry others wanted him to? Not knowing Roy MacGregor, this writer, for one, was worried that he might.

But he didn’t. He stuck to his guns, and in so doing showed the SPL what the real way forward should be. Listening to the paying customer.