Henry McLeish: ‘Sheer folly’ to let Ann Budge and Co map out future

‘Shocking’ if reconstruction group has been set up just to give Hearts a ‘get out of jail’ card
Former First Minister Henry McLeish published his review of Scottish football a decade ago. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNSFormer First Minister Henry McLeish published his review of Scottish football a decade ago. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Former First Minister Henry McLeish published his review of Scottish football a decade ago. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Henry McLeish worked long and hard composing his two-part review of Scottish football which was published a decade ago.

The former first minister now looks on aghast from his home in Fife at the make-up of the task force primed to tackle one of the game’s most profound and long-standing issues over the course of a matter of weeks.

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The first video conference meeting of the hastily organised Reconstruction Group will take place tomorrow afternoon at 4pm. Hearts owner Ann Budge and Hamilton Accies chairman Les Gray, pictured inset, will lead the group comprising 11 other Scottish Professional Football League clubs as well as representatives from the Highland and Lowland Leagues. Their task is to devise a new league format that will appeal to the majority while also solving some awkward dilemmas that are very germane to the interests of several of those involved.

Budge stated yesterday in an interview that she wanted everything done “as quickly as possible – two or three weeks maximum”.

A problem over which Scottish football has agonised for decades is now set to be resolved before the end of next month.

The current circumstances are admittedly extraordinary and therein lies McLeish’s point: deal with the crisis currently enveloping the game due to the pandemic before wrestling with such a complex and divisive issue as reconstruction.

“These are not the conditions in which you set up a group to look at reconstruction, which is really a smokescreen for a short-term set of changes that will tackle some of the immediate problems but do not look to the long-term issues fans and outsiders have long been talking about,” he said.

McLeish has urged intellectual leadership and vision as opposed to the creation of elite working groups made up of officials from a raft of football clubs, many of which are involved in current promotion and relegation issues.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether these discussions would even be taking place were it not Hearts sitting at the bottom of the Premiership? If Hamilton were there, would a so-called Reconstruction Group have even been assembled?

“Finances are all important, I know that, but look, this would be a shocking indictment of Scottish football if a 15-strong group has been set up to establish a ‘get out of jail’ card for a club that may or may not go down,” said McLeish.

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“With the greatest respect to a great club, you cannot run Scottish football that way. It cannot be the basis on which you have a long-term goal of reconstructing the leagues in the interest of the game.

“It is a tragedy that Hearts are in the position they are in,” he added. “But you cannot build a reconstruction on one club however good or bad they may be at the present time. There may well be a solution that gives Hearts an opportunity, if they happen to go down, to come back. But you cannot have a reconstruction predicated on one club amidst one enormous crisis that is really nothing to do with reconstruction.”

“There is really no urgency to this. There are some big issues around the crisis. I would separate the crisis from the reconstruction; reconstruction should be much more long-term, it should be a wider Scotland that is involved.

“It is sheer folly for those involved in dealing with the pandemic implications (for their clubs) to then be sitting around a table looking at a wider reconstruction of the game involving four leagues and millions of supporters.

“I have nothing against any club which wants to stay in the Premiership. But look, if we are going to do reconstruction it must be about the long term and it must be in depth.

“The game is paused, Scotland is paused,” he added. “This is an opportunity to re-think because we do not have the hurly-burly of matches day in, day out.

“My main plea is yes, look at reconstruction but do not do it as an immediate response to a short-term crisis within the league.”

McLeish was once briefed with leading the Scottish game towards salvation and yet here it is, tearing itself apart again. He actually helped conceive the SPFL since one of the key planks of his two-part review was streamlining the two league bodies in existence at the time. The Scottish Football League and Scottish Premier League merged in 2013.

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He also advocated the pyramid system which was brought in five years ago, although this potential path between the Highland and Lowland Leagues and League Two has been temporarily closed off after the SPFL’s resolution to curtail the league season was finally passed last week when Dundee cast the outstanding vote.

McLeish remains dismayed by the game’s insular approach. He wonders why fans have not been given an opportunity to have a say. Where are others who also have an interest in the game, such as broadcast companies, sponsors and even government representatives? The Scottish Football Supporters’ Association recently questioned why they have not been invited to take part in any discussions.

“We of course want fans to have a say in any future reconstruction of our game,” said a statement.

“We as football supporters contribute 43 per cent of revenue to the clubs in the Premiership and over 50 per cent in the leagues below.”

And yet no supporter other than those now involved at board room level at clubs will be represented tomorrow when the Reconstruction Group meets to begin discussions about such a heated topic.

“I remain concerned by the idea all the problems of football can be solved on the sixth floor of Hampden,” said McLeish. “It seems over the last decade, despite me urging them to look out and reach out, the wagons have actually been circled more and more. And this is a pity. Because at a time of crisis you want Scotland to be sympathetic to the plight of football amidst all other more important issues. And, therefore, it is important that the game reaches out amidst that concern.

“The big question is: is the game to be run for the benefit of the few, or for the many, to use a political phrase?” he asks.

“There are many interest groups, including the fans. There are other industry groups, there are broadcast groups, there is a whole welter of groups, including the government, who want to help Scottish football at this particular time.

“By the look of it that is not going to happen,” he added.

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“We are going to have our own little inner group looking at the future when in fact we should be reaching out to bring more people in.

“The game is too close to the people involved. To me it does not make any sense for the Reconstruction Group to be entirely composed of people within the game.

“This is the point about reaching out, to use some of the excellence and experience and interest which is alive and well in Scotland,” continues McLeish.

“My fear is if it’s just the clubs – who are of course vitally important and need to be represented – involved then they will simply look at the immediate few months ahead and immediate problems and not have the long-term perspective that I think is critical.”

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