A CONVENTION intended, according to Scottish Football Association chief executive Stewart Regan, to be “thought-provoking and idea-generating, entertaining and inspiring” turned out to be all this and more as Barry Hearn, the high-profile sports promoter, delivered a tour de force speech on the failings of Scottish football.
Invited to speak at the inaugural Scottish FA convention, held yesterday at Hampden Park, Hearn spared few with his views on how to resuscitate a moribund domestic game. Neil Doncaster, chief executive of the sponsorless Scottish Professional Football League, was a principal target in the boxing, darts and snooker promoter’s 45-minute lecture. Although included on the 200-strong delegate list, Doncaster was understood not to have been present in the auditorium as Hearn stepped on to the stage.
Iain Blair, the operations director and company secretary of the SPFL, was, however, in attendance as Hearn took aim. In a press conference afterwards, Hearn stressed that any employee of his would not be working for him much longer had he or she failed to land a sponsor after more than two years of trying.
The Scottish top tier has been operating without a sponsor since the 2011-12 season. The League Cup has not been sponsored since the Scottish Government ended its involvement in 2013.
The recently-formed SPFL has been sponsorless since its inception last year. This failure to attract investment formed a significant part of Hearn’s attack in a press conference afterwards. His words to reporters reflected what he had told the delegates inside the auditorium during a talk he had, unusually for him, researched thoroughly. He was aghast at some of what he learned. “My message to the leaders would be to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said.
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“If I made a mistake or upset anyone then I’m ever so sorry… but f*** it!” he added. “I usually don’t prepare. I do speeches all over the world on different motivational stuff which comes off quite easily. But [SFA head of communications] Darryl Broadfoot has been sending me all this stuff through and I’ve been reading reports for two weeks. It’s unheard of for me but I kind of enjoyed it.”
Once up to speed, Hearn accused Scottish football of failing to move with the times, of being “lazy” and mired “in self pity”. He described the ban on selling alcohol inside football grounds as an “insult” to the paying customer. Hearn compared the successful re-launch of professional darts to football’s struggle to attract fans despite its position as the nation’s dominant sport.
Hearn is currently chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation as well as being involved in the promotion of both snooker and boxing as chairman of Matchroom Sport. Enhancing his qualifications to speak at a convention about football, he was, until earlier this year, the chairman of Leyton Orient.
“You’ve got this brand,” stressed Hearn. “The things I build brands on start away down at the bottom – you’re already up high. I’m grafting every second to make it bigger and make sure more people appreciate it.
“I look at Scottish football and see a nation with its head down looking at its shoelaces. You’re better than that. You’re not number one in the world but you’re 37th – that’s not a bad starting point.
“When I started off with the darts and snooker we were way down but we believed in ourselves and had a bit of a passion. Sometimes organisations get into that mode of ‘Oh, that’s how it is’.
“They are totally lazy and set in their ways,” he continued. “The fact you’ve got a Scottish Premiership without a sponsor – do you know how long you’d work for Barry Hearn if that was the case? I won’t even tell you how long because that’s not a performance I’m looking for.”
Hearn was speaking the morning after a William Hill Scottish Cup replay between Inverness Caledonian Thistle versus St Mirren had attracted a crowd of just 1,326. Another speaker at yesterday’s convention, the football finance expect Joe McLean, pointed out that just four of Scotland’s 12 current top tier clubs have an average crowd of more than 5,000. Despite a varied and considered list of speakers, including recently appointed SFA compliance officer Tony McGlennan, the irrepressible Hearn stole the show.
“The fact the league doesn’t have a sponsor says everything you need to know,” he said. “So you better get it right. If you don’t then it doesn’t matter to me because I won’t be back to talk again. I certainly won’t be up for the leadership.
“But you can take a horse to water and what I’ve said isn’t rocket science. It’s just common sense. And if they don’t take on the wider picture then you’re stuck with what you are.
“Listen, I’ll carry on selling 11,000 for a night of darts at the Hydro and your attendances will be 1,250 people or whatever. How can a little company like mine turn over the same amount as the SPFL? And how can we make millions and millions of pounds of profit and you’re doing your bollocks-all?
“It’s not just the level of football,” he added. “Two donkeys make a great race. You don’t have to be the best in the world to be entertaining. I put on fights that are s*** sometimes but they’re entertaining.
“I’ve got Prizefighter [a boxing tournament] on Saturday. I’ve got eight lightweights. None will win the world title but they’ll all be brilliant fights because they’ll be kids going for it. Everyone will go home happy, they’ve paid £150 a ticket, and I’ve made a fortune.”
Hearn did not hang around long after ruffling the feathers of some of those in attendance – he rushed to catch a train to Blackpool to watch a pool tournament between Europe and the USA.
He missed a question and answers session with Scotland manager Gordon Strachan yesterday afternoon as well as a talk by Helmut Sandrock, general secretary of the German FA, which traced the renaissance of German football, from the low of failing to qualify past the group stage of Euro 2000 to becoming world champions this year.
With yesterday’s convention set to be an annual fixture, it is hoped listening to some hard truths can lead to an improvement in fortunes for Scottish football.
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