SPFL hits back at Ann Budge over League Cup changes

Hearts owner Ann Budge wanted more detail on League Cup changes.  Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Hearts owner Ann Budge wanted more detail on League Cup changes. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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THE Scottish Professional Football League have firmly rejected complaints led by Hearts owner Ann Budge that clubs were not properly consulted or informed of the radical changes to the League Cup and reintroduction of a winter break.

Budge, who was supported by Motherwell owner Les Hutchison in criticising the timing of the SPFL’s announcement on Monday night, claimed the final details of the reforms were not relayed to clubs in advance.

But the SPFL responded robustly and in detail last night, insisting all 42 of their member clubs were fully briefed and also specifying that Hearts and Motherwell were both involved in several meetings, dating back to October 2014, when the potential changes to the League Cup were discussed.

The tournament will kick-off with a new group stage in mid-July next year, which will see bonus point penalty shoot-outs introduced for drawn matches, enabling the return of a two-week winter break in January 2017. BT Sport have agreed a four-year deal, worth around £8 million, to cover the revamped competition.

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“Following media reports regarding the announcement of the new League Cup format and broadcast partner, it is worth clarifying that all 42 SPFL clubs involved received full details of the final announcement in advance,” said an SPFL spokesman.

“Specifically, three officials at Heart of Midlothian FC as well as two from Motherwell FC received emails at 2pm, and again at 4pm, on Monday 7 December 2015, seven and a half hours ahead of the announcement being made public.

“Furthermore it’s worth noting that both Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell approved the BT broadcasting deal by written resolution at a meeting of the Premiership clubs on 10 September 2015, which made specific reference to the Group Stage for the League Cup (with the exception of the bonus point, which was debated and approved by the Competitions Working Group and the SPFL Board). This subject was widely trailed at general meetings where both Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell were present, over the past year.

“Consultation with member clubs on a possible new format for the Scottish League Cup began as early as 21 October 2014 when, during a general meeting of all 42 clubs at Hampden, we announced that this topic would be explored by a competitions working group made up from representatives of member clubs, including Motherwell. Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell were both represented at this meeting.

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“At subsequent general meetings held on both 19 January 2015 and 23 April 2015, each attended by Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell, all 42 clubs were again fully consulted on the considerations and recommendations of the working group, including a possible new July group stage format and potential broadcaster interest in this.

“Then, at our annual general meeting on 20 July 2015, attended by both Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell, all clubs were again reminded and consulted on the discussions taking place on a possible new format for the Scottish League Cup and broadcast interest.

“Finally, at our general meeting on 5 October 2015, at which both Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell were again present, all clubs were given a detailed update on intentions for the Scottish League Cup for next season onwards.

“We have received an overwhelmingly positive response to yesterday’s announcement from the vast majority of clubs, as well as many supporters, partners and the media, and look forward to continuing to work together for the collective good of Scottish football.”

Budge, who failed in a bid for election to the SPFL board at the agm in July, did concede that the League Cup plans had all been “mooted” previously. But, speaking to BBC Scotland at Hampden where she was attending the SFA’s second annual convention yesterday, she expressed unhappiness at the level of dialogue involved.

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“I would liked to have known a little bit more about them before they were publicly announced,” said Budge.

“I’ve had no longer to study them than you have. They were all things that were mooted before, but in terms of a total package being put together it wasn’t something most of us were aware of. So I haven’t had a chance to examine whether I think it’s the right way forward.

“I know it will influence clubs financially, potentially in contract terms with players, and the fact that we haven’t had a chance to think these things through is a bit of a negative. In saying that, I’m all for change, we do need change.

“We’ve talked about a winter break, we’ve talked about summer football, this is the beginning of something. So I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that I would have liked to have known more about it before it was announced.

“All of the clubs deserve an input into something that is quite so major. These are major changes. It’s appropriate that all of the clubs be invited to participate and I will make that point.

“It is about more dialogue, more days like this [Scottish FA convention] so there is a better understanding of the wider issues. It’s terribly easy to get drawn into your own club or organisational issues.

“So more sharing of information, more opportunity to discuss and debate and have sensible dialogue before decisions are made would be very helpful.”

The SPFL working party, which included chief executive Neil Doncaster, secretary Iain Blair, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, Annan chairman Henry McClelland, Spartans chairman Craig Graham and SFA head of football governance Andrew McKinlay, delivered its findings to the full SPFL board.

The board, on which Doncaster is joined by SPFL chairman Ralph Topping, Aberdeen chief executive Duncan Fraser, Celtic director Eric Riley, Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson, Raith Rovers director Eric Drysdale, Alloa chairman Mike Mulraney and Brechin City chairman Ken Ferguson, ratified the changes last week.

Hearts may avoid the new League Cup group stage in any case, as the four teams who qualify for European competition receive byes directly into the knockout stage.

But Motherwell owner Les Hutchison, whose club will almost certainly be involved in the new League Cup group stage next summer, is concerned by the possible financial implications of the changes in the Scottish football calendar.

“I would like to echo Ann Budge’s comments, as I also found out about the planned changes by reading the BBC website,” said Hutchison.

“We were not given time to review the impact of such changes on the summer transfer window, the financial impact of a two week winter break when club finances are at their weakest, the impact on pre-season player preparations for the new season and reduced player recovery time.

“The majority of clubs are run on very tight budgets and need time to review the financial impact of such significant changes.”