Arveen Arabshahi: Football fans need to be part of governing bodies

The U-turn over when and where this month's Betfred Cup semi-finals will take place is yet another frustrating example of how supporters have become virtual bystanders in the governance of Scottish football.

Arveen Arabshahi is an Associate at Davidson Chalmers and pro-bono adviser to the SFSA
Arveen Arabshahi is an Associate at Davidson Chalmers and pro-bono adviser to the SFSA

With both sides of the Old Firm advancing in the competition last month, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) managed to turn a scheduling challenge into a full-blown crisis when they announced both semi-final matches would take place at Hampden on Sunday 28 October.

The body which runs the top tier of Scottish football said Aberdeen would play Rangers at noon while Hearts would meet Celtic in an evening kick-off at 19.45.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Putting aside the potential calamity of having over 100,000 football supporters of four rival clubs in Glasgow on the same day, the decision appeared to have little regard for fans.

Both Aberdeen and Hearts were quick to express outrage, with Dons manager Derek McInnes branding the plan ‘appalling’, while his Hearts counterpart, Craig Levein, described it as ‘absolute madness’ from the SPFL.

It was difficult to argue. The noon kick-off meant Aberdeen-based fans travelling on the earliest train would not arrive in central Glasgow until 15 minutes after the match had started.

Meanwhile Hearts supporters, 
having the opportunity to attend their first cup semi-final appearance in five years, would be facing a late night finish, preventing many families with younger children from attending.

While there were a number of factors limiting scheduling options, the SPFL showed a lack of imagination as well as contempt for the fans in reaching its decision.

The scale of anger was articulated in a BBC opinion poll where 94 per cent of respondents answered NO when asked ‘Is the SPFL right to play both (League Cup) semi-finals on the same day at Hampden?’

Following protests from supporters and other quarters, including MSPs worried mainly about public safety, came the embarrassing, and perhaps inevitable, climbdown with the announcement that the Hearts vs Celtic match would now be played at Murrayfield at 13.30 on 28 October.

The Rangers vs Aberdeen fixture, meanwhile, would take place at Hampden on the same date but now at the later time of 16.30, enabling the North East club’s supporters to make the trip to Glasgow via train.

While sanity has now prevailed with this U-turn, the antics of the footballing authorities further undermines supporter confidence in the Scottish game.

One of the bodies which threw its weight behind the opposition to the initial fixtures plan was the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA), an organisation which has emerged in response to the growing disenchantment among the fans of the beautiful game.

The group represents grass-roots supporters, many of whom feel alienated, disenfranchised and taken for granted by those who govern Scottish football. Extensive polling conducted by the SFSA found more than 93 per cent of football supporters in Scotland feel they should have more influence in the SPFL with over 60 per cent suggesting they are so disillusioned with how the game is run that they might turn their back on it altogether.

While understanding the commercial considerations that both the clubs and footballing authorities face, maintaining the commitment of supporters needs to be their top priority. Without them there would be no sponsorship nor any other streams of financial revenue.

Aside from a complete reform of the Scottish football governing bodies, a good starting-point would be to build better safeguards into the operation of those bodies to ensure that fans are properly represented and considered.

The chaos that followed the SPFL’s League Cup semi-final fixtures decision was predictable and completely avoidable. It would be wrong to say the views of supporters were ignored because it seems clear they were never consulted in the first place.

The game needs restructuring with robust mechanisms to ensure their voice is heard when such decisions are being made. Such mechanics need to go much further than token gestures.

Scotland’s footballing governing bodies can only score so many own goals before the game is well and truly over. In that event, it will be the supporters, who bring money and passion to the game, who will be the ones to lose.

Arveen Arabshahi is an associate at Davidson Chalmers and pro-bono adviser to the SFSA