LESS than a year after peace and unity came to Scottish football, the prospect of another outbreak of fratricidal strife must fill most of us with dread. Civil wars, even when they are only bureaucratic ones, can do untold damage at any time.
Especially now, with the unified Scottish Professional Football League still in its first season, there is a strong feeling that we need co-operation, not confrontation.
So when we saw yesterday’s headline in the Sunday Mail boldly stating “SPFL IN SECRET PLOT TO HIJACK SFA”, there may well have been a collective sinking of hearts. Blazer versus blazer in the corridors of Hampden – again. Could they not just install a boxing ring deep in the bowels of the national stadium and get the most pugilistic pontificators from either side to punch seven shades of special resolutions out of each other?
A plague on both your houses. If a vote were taken today regarding the respective merits of the SPFL and the SFA, that would probably be the most popular verdict. Either that or simple abstentions, because let’s face it, nothing enthuses football supporters less than an unseemly power struggle between officials.
But can we really afford to ignore this one? Not according to the Sunday Mail, which suggested that four proposals, to be discussed at next month’s annual general meeting of the SFA, all boiled down to two things – “control and cash”.
The proposals themselves, all in the name of Alloa chairman and SPFL board member Mike Mulraney, look innocuous enough. One suggests that two people from the Professional Game Board, rather than the present one, should sit on the main board of the SFA. A second advocates the scrapping of time-serving criteria for the president and vice-president of the SFA. A third wants the PGB to take charge of the SFA’s budget for football development, currently controlled by the SFA board. And a fourth wants the member clubs, not as at present the SFA board, to decide on new members.
Invited to respond to the revelations, the SFA itself declined to offer anything yesterday but a bland statement saying that member clubs were entitled to put proposals to an agm. In private, however, senior figures within the governing body are deeply concerned about what they see as an attempt by the SPFL to get its hands on money it does not deserve.
The third resolution is the key here. The PGB, as its name suggests, is concerned with the top end of the game – the professional clubs and players. So why should it have control over a development budget that deals with all aspects of the game, right down to the youngest players and the most modest facilities in the country?
The answer, according to those senior figures, is that the SPFL is becoming greedy. Without a sponsor, and in need of extra money, the unified league looks enviously at the millions poured in by grassroots sponsors such as McDonald’s and Tesco Bank. The PGB might think that, as the elite level of the sport, it has the clearest vision of what is required to succeed, and that sharing its vision will help the grassroots. But a few doors down, inside another Hampden office, the perception is quite different.
Within the SFA, the perception is that things at the grassroots are doing well. Our national age-group teams are thriving, for example, and the women’s team are in the world top 20 and well on the way to World Cup qualification. The improvement to the men’s national team under Gordon Strachan has returned a feelgood factor to Scottish football, enthusing tens of thousands of boys and girls to take up the game or stick at it.
All this is in jeopardy, according to those who back SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, if Mulraney and his allies get their way. To them, it bears an eerie resemblance to 1998, when the biggest clubs broke away to form the SPL: 15 years of disunity followed with no discernible benefit.
The development plan that is now in place, like the league structure, was backed by every club last summer. Why rip it up now, when it has not even had the time to succeed or fail? Why put self-interest before the greater good of the game?
Those answers to the third proposal certainly appear to have merit. At the very least, those who want the PGB to control the development budget should outline their plans for spending that budget. If they really want to nurture the grassroots, if they have no interest in seizing extra money for themselves, they could easily come up with a plan that ring-fences funding and ensures that money currently being spent on new pitches does not get diverted into the wage packet of an already affluent Premiership player. But while it looks like the SPFL have a lot of work to do before proposal three comes anywhere close to garnering the 75 per cent of the vote it needs to be passed, there is more obvious merit in some of the other measures. Take the criteria for being a senior SFA office-bearer, for example: four years here and eight meetings there before you can have the dubious pleasure of being president or vice-president. This sort of stuff reeks of arcane amateurism, and contributes more to the negative perception of the SFA blazers than almost anything else.
There are arguments for and against the other two proposals as well, and both, like the third proposal, need at least to be finessed before they should be voted through. That process can begin tomorrow, when the SPFL and SFA boards meet.
Mulraney certainly struck the right note of conciliation yesterday when asked to explain his proposals. Rather than rubbishing his supposed opponents, he said he had been, and remained, willing to discuss and debate. “We haven’t campaigned for these changes,” he said. “It’s a time for discussion, not campaigning.”
And, if at all possible, a time for consensus, not conflict.