SINCE his appointment as chairman of the Scottish Premier League in October 2009, Ralph Topping has generally preferred to operate behind a cloak of anonymity and leave the often embattled chief executive Neil Doncaster as the public face of the organisation.
Given the SPL’s capacity for lurching aimlessly from one crisis to another in recent times, Topping’s reluctance to enter the public domain on too many occasions has perhaps been understandable. Especially as he carries out the role on a voluntary basis, in conjuction with his highly successful day job as chief executive of William Hill.
But Topping chose to charge into the front line yesterday after chairing a meeting of all 12 SPL clubs at Hampden which has revived the prospect of league reform being introduced to Scottish football in time for the start of next season. He admits to having experienced major frustration at the manner in which the SPL has to conduct its business, even hinting that he may not have accepted the offer to succeed Lex Gold more than three years ago if he had been made fully aware of what he was committing himself to.
“I’ve been exasperated since day one,” said Topping. “Some of the things they told me in the interview turned out not to be true. But I’ve always stayed behind the scenes, you haven’t seen a lot of me.
“That’s been deliberate because I do think you have to do a lot of the work behind the scenes. So, yes, I’m exasperated because I think it is capable of being so much better than it is currently. Hopefully, this agreement today will take it forward.
“It’s been like going shopping with your daughters. It takes forever to get shoes. We’ve been in and out of the shoe shop a number of times now. But we’ve gone in today and managed to get the right colour of shoes, the right size of shoes and everybody is quite happy.”
It was not the only colourful analogy Topping applied to his bid to achieve consensus among the 12 clubs over a proposal. He believes they needed to reach the footballing equivalent of intensive care before what he feels is an appropriate cure to the game’s ills can be found.
“At some point I always said the pain would get to be too much and some morphine would need to be administered to the patient,” added Topping. “They can now see the morphine, they have opened the bottle and I think they have to formally ratify how much morphine goes into the capsule.
“But we are at that stage at the moment. There is a lot which could still be spilled on the way to the intraveneous injection. But right here and now I would argue I don’t see that happening.”
Topping’s confidence that the latest plan will not go the way of the contentious 12-12-18 proposal, which was vetoed by Ross County and St Mirren last month, is based on the more harmonious tone of yesterday’s meeting. The acrimony with which Aberdeen chairman Stewart Milne and others lambasted St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour and his Ross County counterpart Roy MacGregor a few weeks ago appears to have been soothed.
“We made it clear today that you can’t look back, you have to look forward,” added Topping. “I made it clear from the start there was to be no griping, no digging at people.
“Generally there is never an opportunity missed for that kind of activity in Scottish football. But today everybody conducted themselves really well. There were no raised voices, no slammed tables, no heated arguments. It was good, constructive debate. Just what you should normally expect around a boardroom meeting table.
“You get the league you deserve, you get the football set-up you deserve. I’ve been saying that to the guys for the last three years.
“I’ve told them ‘It’s your league, it’s your decision and your call. We have a voting structure you actually put in place many years ago. So get real and get on with it.
“I’ve dealt with some very complex transactions in the last six months [for William Hill]. We bought a partner out for £450 million and we bought a business in Australia for £450 million. That was done in a relative blink of an eye, compared with some of the things happening at the SPL.
“That is really just the construct of the business. It is essentially a group of 12 equal shareholders. That is a difficult organisation to round up and point in the same direction. So from an SPL point of view, we have done that today. Now we have to wait and see what the Scottish Football League clubs do.
“Overhanging us all has to be the SFA’s ambition and where the politicians are on all these matters. Also, the success of the national team. If you have a stronger game up here, you might see more changes which will be of benefit to the guys who run out at Hampden Park.
“I’ve been doing this job for three years and I haven’t taken a penny for it in wages. I haven’t even put in an expense claim. I always said I wanted to walk away at some point if we’re not making progress.
“I said I was leaving in July and I’m not sure if that caused a wee bit of a stooshie in terms of giving them focus. But I do think the game has so much more to achieve than it is being allowed to achieve.”
In essence, many of the changes being proposed will simply see Scottish football return to the kind of set-up it had before what has in many ways proved to be the ruinous SPL breakaway of 1998. “I wasn’t there when the decisions were made 15 years ago,” said Topping. “I can only look at it now and say we have made progress today and there are valid reasons for it changing.
“It would be stupid for us to look back and say it didn’t work and not look at some of the positives which came out of being in the SPL. We’ve had some success in Europe, with Celtic and Rangers getting to finals since the SPL has been around. We’ve had the famous helicopter Sundays.
“But there is a downside – the duplication of having so many league structures. To have one which is unified makes sense.”