WHEN Raith Rovers entertain Celtic in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup this afternoon, it won’t just be BBC Scotland’s live coverage that will give the tie a special ambience. (“The cameras, at last, have found us,” chides club chairman Turnbull Hutton).
There is every chance the occasion will also be remarkable for Hutton being hurrahed in song by the opposition supporters. Last summer, Scottish football found in the 66-year-old its poster boy for upholding principle. It did so because of Hutton’s unforgettable “dead parrot” denunciation of the Scottish Premier League for their desperate attempt, in cahoots with other governing bodies, to perch the newco Rangers in the First Division. His words on the Hampden steps in July made him a champion for supporters of all the other clubs who felt locked out of the debate in how to deal with the Ibrox club.
“In essence, the SPL is like a dead parrot,” Hutton said at the time. “It’s financially unsustainable. It hasn’t worked for the past 14 years, it has been a failure. It’s all gone belly-up.”
Hutton was vindicated, of course. There was no soft landing for the liquidated Rangers and they had to begin again in the bottom tier. The SPL, meanwhile, is on borrowed time and will soon merge with the Scottish Football League.
“That’s another story,” says the genial Fifer when asked to recall the events of that momentous summer. “The strangest one ever. People like to put their own spins on that. Being anti-Rangers or pro-Celtic was never a factor. It was my own view and I can live with that. And what has happened since suggests it was the right view.”
He is supportive of the latest league reconstruction proposals that find clubs and administrators engaged in robust, transparent discussions a world away from the rancourous machinations of seven months ago.
Hutton, a Harvard graduate, accepts that he may have contributed to the climate of “harsh words” then. In 35 years working in business he gathered a reputation for straight talking. Neither does he mind confessing that advancing years loosen the tongue. “We all have a Victor Meldrew gene, I believe,” he says. “And that means as we get older, we get grumpier and basically just tell it like it bloody well is.”
Yet the backdrop to why Hutton bit back is, he feels, too often glossed over in the tale that gave him a “high profile” he “never sought”. He said his piece that July afternoon, having listened to SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his SFA counterpart Stewart Regan effectively warn the SFL they could be killing the game if, as Hutton says, “we didn’t sort out the SPL’s problem with Rangers”.
And as he listened, all the while, he could not block from his mind the horrible problems Rangers had caused Raith director Eric Drysdale, and his club. Drysdale had sat on an anonymous three-man judicial panel that in the April issued a number of sanctions, including a transfer embargo and a £160,000 fine, for the malfeasance at Rangers as the club went bust.
Rangers manager Ally McCoist claimed the punishment could kill off the club and demanded the panel members be named and, after their identities were revealed on the internet, the SFA confirmed that the trio were spoken to by Strathclyde Police after threats to Drysdale.
“People forget all the nonsense with our director, forget all the nonsense with Ally McCoist banging on about ‘who are these people?’ and Sandy Jardine banging on about boycotts of other clubs. They were patently grandstanding, and in the process hanging out our director to dry and hanging out our club to dry. They forget we were then fighting relegation, had a crucial game at home that weekend, but then had to employ 24-hour security on Stark’s Park to deal with a threat to burn down our ground that Strathclyde Police informed Fife Police was viable.
“So I wasn’t in the best humour when I went to Hampden that day and was then targeted to make the situation all right for Rangers with a deal to put them in the First Division that would require the rulebook to be ripped up. How the hell was I going to support that? Then I came out on the steps, had 25 bloody reporters and three TV camera crew accost me and I just told it how it bloody well was. Do I regret that? No!”
At last Thursday’s gathering of SFL clubs, Hutton found himself in the same room as McCoist but the pair did not speak. “I haven’t spoken to Ally about anything from last year,” the Burntislander says. “There were too many people at the meeting maybe to have a chat. I don’t know, perhaps it was incumbent on me to go up and hug Ally. Then again, no-one from Rangers has ever been in touch with my director [Drysdale] to offer any words on what they put him through. But I had umpteen e-mails from Rangers supports agreeing that they should be in the Third Division.”
A time to move on finds Scottish football with a genuine opportunity to progress. “There is a momentum for change and we can’t let it drift,” Hutton says. “We have the usual Scottish doom-mongers saying the two 12s becoming three eights never worked in Austria but, Christ, it’s worth a try.”
Hutton has sometimes felt he and his board have been trying to keep the fires burning at Raith, figuratively, in the face of a perpetual Arctic drift. “Someone up there has smiled on us,” he says of two lucrative cup ties with Celtic this season – “if we had drawn Rangers my wife says I wasn’t getting out the house,” he laughs – and the live game match fee that will allow the First Division club to turn a profit for the first time in years. “We just haven’t been able to do that, despite cutting away at the costs. In a bloody recession the crowds have cut away too and we have these tortuous meetings which end with us getting the cheque books out to ensure the players are paid,” says Hutton.
“And the Armageddon talk from Neil Doncaster about [Rangers] dropping from the Premier to the First? If you want to know about Armageddon, try getting relegated to the Second Division.”
That fall from grace is the sharp contrast to the irresistible rise forever brought mind by a cup tie against Celtic, whom the Kirkcaldy side beat in the 1994 League Cup final on the way to playing top flight and European football the following year. Hutton reflects on those times in a way that few others probably do, because he has had to struggle in the gloomy shadow created by them. “The normal support will see the cup win, and the Bayern Munich game it earned, the Premier League promotion, as huge highlights. But when I look back from 2000 to where we are now, these are the worst things that ever happened to us, in some senses. We had to go down that route of the 10,000-seater stadium, lumping cash on players that were hardly used, and got carried away in thinking we were a bigger club than we were. I wouldn’t wish any great moments away, but I can’t say in all honestly that, long-term, they were good for the club.”
Hutton admits the job is draining. “We have excellent directors, but they are in demanding jobs, while I am retired. So they have the energy, but not the time, and I have the time, but not the energy,” he says. “I was never meant to be chairman and, if I am alive then, I will step down in the summer. That is, providing I can get some other bugger to take it.”