WEE club, big decision. Ross County have punched above their weight in the Premier League this season, but you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes at Hampden tomorrow.
As County chairman Roy MacGregor ponders what to do with a vote that could shape the immediate future of football in this country, the pressure is mounting by the minute.
On Friday, Hearts warned that rejection of the latest reconstruction proposals would “speed up the demise of Scottish football”. Now, as SPL clubs prepare to pass judgment on the controversial plan for leagues of 12, 12 and 18, Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, has stepped forward to lean on MacGregor. Tonight will be a sleepless one for the County chairman, who is expected to cast the decisive vote. For the plan to clear the first of two hurdles – the second is an SFL vote later in the week – it will need to be carried with an 11-1 majority. Ten clubs are thought to be in favour of the plan. Stewart Gilmour, the St Mirren chairman, has indicated that his club will oppose it.
If that is how it pans out, the burden of responsibility will rest almost entirely with MacGregor. He has made no secret of his reservations, shared by the club’s supporters and manager, Derek Adams, but he is also aware of a rare consensus among the clubs.
Lawwell argues that, had MacGregor been through what the rest of the SPL have been through these past few years, he would vote “yes”. Asked if he would be speaking to MacGregor ahead of the meeting, Lawwell said: “If that’s what it takes, yes. I know Roy is being chased by every press man in the country, every chairman or chief executive. He’s in an awful position, which is really unfortunate. He’s a great guy. He’s got a great club. He’s done a brilliant job up there and I respect his right to vote. But what I would be saying to Roy is that, with the greatest of respect, they are new to the SPL. And the other ten clubs have been round the block many, many times, been in it for long enough and been part of reconstruction and strategy talks for three years. We have the cuts and bruises. Maybe he should listen.
“It’s fine being new and fresh and they’ve done fantastically well, but is that going to be his position in two, three or four years’ time once he has experienced it all?
“Maybe in two or three years’ time, when the novelty factor has worn off and the quality has kept coming down, Roy might say ‘that was an opportunity lost’. Maybe he’s right, but ten of us don’t agree and we’ve been around for years. It’s not a threat. It’s not an ultimatum. It’s just trying to get him to understand what we know and he has no reason to know because it’s new to him.”
MacGregor, who agrees with many elements of the package, is concerned about the effect on season ticket sales of a 12-12-18 structure in which the top two divisions split into three tiers of eight after 22 matches. He has also said to Lawwell that his club, currently fifth in the SPL, would have ended up in the middle eight under the proposed system.
Lawwell argues that, in another season, the split could just as easily work in their favour. “That’s football,” says Lawwell. “You take your chances.
“For me, the whole purpose of this is to create more excitement, more drama and the first 22 games would do that. Therefore, your season books would be unaffected. In fact, they’d probably grow.”
Lawwell is keen to put in perspective the meeting at which County supporters informed the club’s board of their opposition to the plan. He said that their views should be compared with those of the 9,000 Celtic season ticket holders who did not attend their recent home match against Hibs.
“I think there were 130 fans at the meeting Roy held that night. With the greatest of respect, we have 9,000 fans not turning up and they’ve paid for it. That puts it into context, I think.”
Lawwell is frustrated that the unanimity announced after an SPL meeting in January no longer seems to exist. He says that there was no mention then of Gilmour’s problem, which is the 11-1 voting majority required to carry certain motions.
“The 11-1 is a red herring, a total smokescreen,” says Lawwell.
“This fallacy that Celtic and Rangers have used this as a block for progress is a nonsense. We have never ever voted, in my time, to block anything under 11-1.”
Lawwell says that the 11-1 system applies only to so-called “protected items”, such as the voting structure itself, shirt sponsorship and the number of home matches a club is obliged to have broadcast live as part of the SPL’s television contract.
If, for instance, Sky were to offer more money for the right to show every league match at Parkhead, a vote in favour could have a catastrophic effect on Celtic’s finances.
“If that was an 8-4, and Sky came along and said we’ll give [the SPL] an extra £2 million... there’s a good chance we’re going to lose it and we’re going to lose it because St Mirren are going to get another 100 grand. But what’s going to happen to our club is that everyone is going to watch it on the telly and no one is going to come here and we come crashing down.
“You can’t have it. Aberdeen don’t want it, Dundee United don’t want it, Hearts, Hibs, they don’t want it.
“It’s anti-competitive. We would go to the Office of Fair Trading and we would win it. It’s not legal. You can’t be put at such a competitive disadvantage in a collective.”
Under the new proposals, Celtic will be protected against a salary cap, quotas on young, homegrown players and the need to give more notice of resignation from the league. They have also argued against plans for an earlier start to the season, which would adversely affect their tour revenue.
In return, they are prepared to give up a considerable chunk of prize money so that it can be distributed through the league. That give and take, says Lawwell, is why the package has to be taken in its entirety, with no “cherry-picking”. “It’s taken eight months to put together and for every positive there’s a negative. If you take one out, someone will like it, but someone else won’t like it. It disturbs the equilibrium and the whole thing unravels.”
The proposals are not perfect, but Lawwell believes that the introduction of a single governing body, a more even distribution of wealth and an increase in the number of meaningful matches will benefit Scottish football. It is, he says, a remarkable feat of negotiation that should not go to waste. The current powerbrokers have never been so close to an agreement, which would bring much-needed stability and credibility at a time when crowds are plummeting and the SPL is losing its title sponsor.
“If it doesn’t happen, it stays the same and that, to me, is not palatable,” says Lawwell. “The game has been on a downward trend for the past few years. I would see no reason for that to change if we stay the same.”