HIBERNIAN chief executive Leeann Dempster has welcomed the SPFL decision to backtrack over the scheduling of Rangers’ final Championship fixture with Hearts but added that the initial lack of judgment remains a cause for major concern.
The league had made the unusual decision to ignore protocol and stagger the final round of matches in the second tier, despite the fact that it handed the Ibrox side the advantage of knowing what they needed to do to secure second place, with everyone else playing 24 hours earlier.
They said it was to accommodate broadcast media but after a swell of criticism, in which the question of sporting integrity took centre stage, the authorities have performed a volte face, synchronising all the matches.
With the agreement of Sky Sports, who will broadcast the Tynecastle fixture, it was agreed to move the game back to the original date of Saturday, 2 May and play all the Championship matches simultaneously, at 12:15pm.
But, like many within the game, including SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, her counterparts at other Championship clubs, and even Rangers manager Stuart McCall, Dempster remained stunned that the initial decision had been made and even more perturbed by the fact the SPFL seemed so surprised by the fall-out.
“I’m surprised that they are surprised,” she said. “I think there needs to be a look at the governance of the organisation if they believe that this type of decision is acceptable to the clubs. And, let’s be frank here, the league put the onus on clubs like ourselves to make a decision to ask for a move, rather than the league itself deciding what the best way forward was. That is not our job. Our job is to go and win football matches. Our job is not to sort fixture lists. I think that responsibility ought not to fall on the clubs.”
In response to some suggestions that it had been done to give Rangers an edge and improve the odds of their return to the top flight, she replied: “I don’t know about a darker motive but there was possibly a little bit of complacency. But I can’t understand them not seeing the concerns [their fixture list] would cause. The moment it hit my inbox it resonated with me, in terms of what the implications would be. It staggers me that it was stated that there would be no advantage or disadvantage – I just don’t see how that could be true.
“All I asked them to do is to make sure that the competition was unimpeachable. In that respect, it meant they had to go back and re-visit it all.”
She was not the only one, with Hearts owner Ann Budge also raising the issue of footballing integrity. Happy to hear that the league had taken the concerns on board and come up with a solution, she said the situation should never have been allowed to happen and apologised to fans who had been inconvenienced by the uncertainty and the need to rethink plans for the final weekend twice within the space of 24 hours.
“I hope this will be good news for the majority of our supporters, many of whom faced financial loss due to [the] proposed change of date,” said Budge in a statement released yesterday. “However, I am equally aware that a number of supporters changed travel plans in light of [the] announcement and will now potentially suffer loss. We sympathise totally with any supporters who have lost out because of this but unfortunately there is very little if anything that the club could do while everything was in a state of flux.”
“I read the statement from the SPFL last night that they were surprised by the reaction. To be frank, I don’t understand why they would be surprised”Leeann Dempster
Earlier in the day Regan had stopped short of directly criticising the SPFL for the error in judgment which prompted such a furious backlash and so many damning headlines but he did stress that if he had been responsible the Championship matches would always have been scheduled to kick off together.
Said Regan: “It’s never easy when you are trying to balance the needs of broadcasters, clubs, fans and sponsors but my view on this is that the fans come first and they have to be considered.”
Announcing the eventual u-turn, the SPFL stated that: “Following consultation between the SPFL, member clubs and broadcast partners regarding the final round of Championship fixtures over the weekend of 2 and 3 May, Sky Sports has now suggested an alternative schedule for its televised Championship match that weekend.
“As a result, we are pleased to confirm all five Championship matches that weekend will now kick off simultaneously at 12:15pm on Saturday, 2 May. The Hearts v Rangers match will be televised live on Sky Sports.
“The SPFL would like to thank Sky Sports for its flexibility and understanding and we’re sure all football fans will look forward to an exciting climax to the Championship season.”
But the fact it got as far as it did still confounds Dempster. “It absolutely baffles me that it was deemed that there was no issue here. There clearly was an issue,” she said. “Undoubtedly, this has left a really sour taste. Not just for ourselves, but for many clubs.”
The matter does not appear to be over yet. Last night it emerged that Dumbarton have written to the SPFL to ask for their final day Championship game with Raith Rovers to go ahead at the original 3pm kick-off time.
The Sons face losing thousands of pounds in revenue from their hospitality if the game has to go ahead alongside all the others at 12:15pm and, with nothing at stake for either club, they are demanding a move back to a kick-off time neither club had complained about.
The club’s chief executive Gilbert Lawrie said: “We recognise the difficulties in satisfying the needs of television broadcasters and the principle of sporting integrity. However, the club board feel there is little integrity in scheduling our game at 12:15pm given that the fixture cannot have any bearing on the Championship promotion or relegation play-offs.”
Raith have agreed to Dumbarton’s request for a 3pm start.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS