FOR Henry McLeish, this weekend’s start of the new Scottish Professional Football League era is the culmination of what he says has been “torment, torture and hell” for the game in Scotland over the past three years.
Since publishing his Review of Scottish Football in 2010, the former First Minister has been gratified to see more than 95 per cent of the 103 recommendations he made either completed or set in motion by the governing bodies.
The return to a single league body was the most recent one to be implemented, the reunification of the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League finally undertaken at the end of June following months of often rancourous negotiations.
McLeish admits that the new set-up is far from perfect and accepts there is still considerable work to be done in finding a structure which meets the demands of supporters and is sufficiently attractive to sponsors. However, he believes simply reaching any kind of initial agreement has been an achievement in itself.
“I think we should celebrate the fact they have got to where they have got,” said McLeish. “If you go back three years, it was very doubtful whether it could have been achieved in this timescale. There have been three years of hell and torture and times of torment. Often it is when people are taken to the brink that they come back. I think it is the best outcome at the present time.
“There is still a lot of work to be done. There are still debates about the size of leagues, but let’s take one step at a time. Where we are is relative to the financial position and relative to the fact we want more competition and investment, but having one structure is going to pay dividends because it means there will be a united voice at club level.
“Clearly there has been acrimony, clearly there is a lot of bitterness, clearly there is still a lack of trust in the game, but that was there in a much bigger way three years ago. So I think we have made real progress on that. I think it is a great first step.
“The obvious glib thing would be to say I like to look forward rather than back. You could debate the ins and outs of what happened in 1998 when the top clubs broke away from the SFL to form the SPL, but one of the benefits of having a unified league is that all of the divisions, clubs and boards will be involved in one group.
“The four divisions have got a challenge. Okay, you can sign the deal and change the structure, but they have to work closely now to fulfil what a unified league body should deliver for Scottish football. Finance is a huge, huge challenge for the game. It is reflected in the fact we lack sponsors and in the size of the broadcasting deal. It is also reflected in the fact the fan base is still reasonably fragile, although they have stuck well by the game. But three years ago, there were huge difficulties for anyone to invest in the game. It was at a low ebb in terms of morale. There was squabbling, sectarianism and the rough and tumble of what we saw.
“So if I was a potential sponsor or investor, I’d be thinking twice. The self-help process has improved that. What I said to SFA president George Peat when he commissioned my review back in May 2009, and what I’ve said to current president Campbell Ogilvie, is that people will only take us seriously if we start to take ourselves seriously and clean up the game. That’s the first step to attracting investors.
“I can’t say that what we have done will automatically bring in higher broadcasting deals or more fans to the game, but I do think we are in a far better position to argue, to the government and to other sponsors, that we have self-helped and so we can entice them to get involved in the game. It’s not about negotiations, because we are in a reasonably weak position. It’s about improving the product on the pitch and making it worth more to sponsors and broadcasters.”
McLeish was speaking at Hampden on the day an SFA Judicial Panel held their hearing into Hearts’ insolvency event, underlining the ongoing difficulties facing Scottish football on the eve of the new season. He hopes it represents a watershed in the way Scottish clubs approach their financial operations.
“Surely the lesson has now been learned about sustainability for clubs in terms of credibility of finances,” added McLeish. “Of course clubs stretch themselves at times, but at one point we had a situation where one club’s (Hearts) ratio of wages to turnover was 120 per cent.
“Those are not the economics of stability, these are the finances of the madhouse. Hopefully, if we get a resolution of the current problems [at Hearts], then the club will take a different perspective.”
McLeish expects yesterday’s media conference to be his last direct involvement in the game, his work effectively done and now in the hands of others at both the SFA and SPFL.
“I think this will be the last briefing I will do, because essentially the report is done and the recommendations are being implemented or have been concluded,” he said. “It’s now over to the wider game. I think the wider game is now in better heart and has more confidence than it had three years ago.
“I still dibble and dabble in the game and work with the government to try and see what we can do to get investment in Scottish football, but this is the fulfilment of a great period for me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I love the game with a passion and I think we’ve got a great future ahead of us.”