Interview: Ralph Topping on visiting Ibrox with a priest

Given he was instrumental in William Hill, where he rose to chief executive from part-time shop employee, sponsoring the Scottish Cup, and bearing in mind his unpaid stretch as chairman of the SPFL, which officially ends next month, few could accuse Ralph Topping of not putting a lot into Scottish football.

Ralph Topping is stepping down as chairman of the SPFL. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

But he still feels compelled to apologise to Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, whenever they meet. Topping was often snuck into Parkhead by Father McNamara, a friend from Armadale who, despite being a Hibs fan, would make liberal use of the free entry for priests policy once in place at Celtic.

Topping, another boyhood Hibs supporter, grew up in West Lothian, where his football education – if not health prospects – improved under the wing of ‘Father Mac’, an impish, irreverent influence who eventually left his original calling to work for Pan Am in the United States.

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“I tell Peter (Lawwell) the story of coming in for free with the priest, and joke I owe him money,” says Topping.

“This priest was a troublemaker! It was a St Johnstone game, Henry Hall was playing, a great wee player. Father Mac and I were up the back and he took the opportunity to shout out: ‘C’mon St Johnstone!’

“This stand was all green and white, I was petrified. I was a policeman’s son, a law-abiding chap. The whole crowd is looking round. There he was with his dog collar. ‘Oh it could not have been the priest’.

“Another time we went to Ibrox. Hibs drew Rangers in the Scottish Cup. We got tickets through Colin Stein. He grew up in the same village, my dad knew the Stein family. We ended up getting good tickets from Colin right in the main stand at Ibrox and never thinking that my dad would bring the Father. But he did, because Father Mac was a Hibs fan.

“I will never forget when we parked outside the Chapel House and he emerged with his dog collar on. My dad’s words were: ‘oh for f*ck’s sake’, because he had the responsibility of parking the car.

“As it was he parked it down by the old Stadium Bar, on Copland Road. But the Rangers fans were fantastic, all shaking Father Mac’s hand. In the stand they were shaking his hand. He never got any abuse. ‘Thanks for coming along Father’. It was absolutely brilliant. On the way back – I think Rangers had played Celtic the week before and won 4-2 – we’re at Baillieston lights, and a Celtic bus draws up next to us. And he goes like this with his fingers: 4-2! We were like: ‘What’s he doing?’ He pulls down the zip on his jacket and there is the priest collar. And the Celtic fans are all wondering, ‘what the hell!’ He was a wind-up merchant.”

He left the priesthood soon after.

“A lot of clubs have been important for me,” adds Topping, as he prepares to become just another punter again, following eight years of invites to the directors’ box at clubs across Scotland.

His favourite-ever player? “Pat Stanton, without a shadow of a doubt. Majestic. Others too, Jimmy O’Rourke and John Brownlie. (Alex) Cropley. Colin Stein. It was a treat seeing Colin play. He signed from Armadale Thistle.

“I remember going to see Alan Cousin’s debut for Hibs at Boothferry Park. Hull had a player called Wagstaff – what a player he was. I’d never heard of him. Hull won 4-1. I was like, ‘my god it’s a different game down here’.

“We were on holiday and I nagged to go to Hull! My dad and I sauntered off to the football while my mum was left on a trailer park in this caravan with all these lorries around her – there was not even any TV – while we went to watch Hibs get pumped by Hull.”

At least the reliable Cousin turned up that day. Hopes of seeing George Best play in a Hibs shirt were dashed when Topping chose the famous afternoon Best was waylaid at a hotel on Princes Street following a riotous night of partying.

“I don’t mind a guy enjoying himself but I am slightly disappointed he didn’t feel he could come along and entertain the future chairman of the SPFL, so that’s a wee black mark against him,” smiles Topping.

Soon, of course, Topping will be erstwhile chairman. This week it was announced that Murdoch MacLennan, whose background is newspapers, had been appointed successor, the successful candidate from a short list of three.

Topping is confident MacLennan can provide firm, even-handed leadership while also using his high profile in the business world to Scottish football’s advantage, something he, as a former chief executive of the UK’s largest betting firm, sought to do.

Acording to Topping, the SPFL, where 42 members ostensibly decide the future of the business, is “like a golf club” compared to a FTSE 100 company. “It took a while to get your head round it. In a normal business the chairman has a strong working relationship with the chief executive. You get things done. Then you find out there’s an 11-1 voting structure – two clubs can stop you doing anything.

“It’s an absolute myth it’s always Rangers and Celtic. There have been smaller clubs that stopped key decisions being implemented.” Topping hopes MacLennan can succeed in an area where he was frustrated – extending board member terms of office from one year to three. “That was voted down by some clubs north of the Tay,” he muses.

But 95 per cent of the job has been enjoyable, he claims. “One of the highlights of my life was going to Easter Road last season as part of the presentation of medals for the guys for winning the Championship.

“I’d always wanted to play for the Hibs – so it was an honour to walk out and be booed by 18,000 fans! I thought: ‘this is what a free transfer sounds like!’”

Topping didn’t take it personally. “It’s like Pavlov’s dogs,” he says. “Mention of the SPFL, and it’s booo! But it rounded my time off well.”

Topping clearly adores Scottish football. So whatever criticism can be levelled at him, lack of passion for the game isn’t one of them. He doesn’t have to tell you he’d far rather watch a game at Brechin than entertain guests at the William Hill corporate box at Arsenal’s 
Emirates stadium, where the majority of the games, he says, are dull.

But to have managed to retain this enthusiasm having emerged after years in a position of authority at Hampden is an achievement in itself.

It’s hard to believe his estimate that a mere five per cent of his time at the SPFL has proved gruelling.

His terms in office – he also served on the SFA board – coincided with, amongst other things, the SPL and SFL’s union to form the SPFL and the financial meltdown at Rangers. Even now, he isn’t being allowed to slip quietly into the night.

There is, of course, the on-going ramifications from the Rangers Big Tax case, with the Supreme Court last week ruling in HMRC’s favour, and the vexed question of stripping titles. It’s not applause that Topping will hear when he steps down for good later this year – he’s agreed to stay on for a two-month “induction” period to help MacLennan acclimatise.

Instead, it’s anguished cries of ‘what about those tainted titles then?’ The current debate threatens to become the most divisive issue of these times in Scottish football – and beyond.

“Get used to it, it will last for 100 years,” says Topping. “Fans become polarised. It’s a fact of life in general. You have a view, and Twitter, Facebook and other mediums help reinforce that view. Whereas years ago if you were in a pub you’d get older guys in pubs going, ‘away you go, forget about it’.

“It is going to last,” he adds. “It is a cause. Everyone is a journalist now. Every one has a point of view. It’s a passion. I’d just like to see more (of these people) turn up for games.”

While the SFA stressed no further action will be taken, “for the time being”, the SPFL are still to comment officially on the Supreme Court judgment. But they, like the SFA, seem set to confirm satisfaction with the findings of the Lord Nimmo Smith commission, from 2013, something Celtic want reviewed.

“What I think you see is lots of activity, potential challenges and ways to challenge the process or outcome,” says Topping, who is confident the SPFL can provide a robust defence. “The SFA are going to be a big target. The SPFL has been through (the) Lord Nimmo Smith (commission). A lot of fans will say Lord Nimmo Smith should be revisited.

“In these circumstances you have to rely on legal minds,” he adds. “We have not gone to a solicitor in Arbroath. We have gone to the finest solicitor in the land and taken his view, which we were duty bound to do. He has given us what we think is very sound legal advice.”

This advice was sought independently of the SFA, and not shared between boards. “We (the SPFL board) sat with him on what must have been four occasions – and he was challenged from everyone.

“We wanted to make sure we were ready for any challenges subsequently. And I think we are, I think we are.

“That won’t stop people having views,” he adds. “It won’t stop people talking about it for years to come. It’s useless to say keep quiet. The fact is they won’t.

“There are a lot of wealthy people who support football clubs who will fund certain activities around challenges. The authorities just have to accept it and be measured in their response.”

Although criticised for a slow, to-date absent response, the SPFL, according to Topping, were prepared for last week’s Supreme Court outcome. “You examine all the possibilities,” he says. “We had to think about everything.

“The guy’s legal advice has been spot on,” he adds. “He called it right. You have to be comfortable with the advice you are given. As things stand we did the right thing getting the opinion from the QC – the best in Scotland was available to us, so we got that.

“Are we going to please everyone? Fat chance. Will fans go on about it? Yes. It’s an emotional subject. When will the book be closed on it? Never.”

Topping is clearly looking forward to becoming just another face in the crowd again. But whether he will be able to slip into the shadows is another matter. He’s been criticised for being too anonymous during his time as chairman. The truth is, when he’s needed to say something, he’s not been shy about saying it.

Topping most recently hit the headlines with his views on Hampden Park, which a decent atmosphere at the recent game v England hasn’t helped change. Would he put a bet on Scotland having a new, improved national stadium in a decade’s time?

“Only if it attracted huge investment, and given where we are with Brexit, with governments cutting back on investment in hospitals and wherever else, is there a better way for a government to spend money? Probably.

“Tell me the top five stadiums you’ve been at? Does Hampden feature? Scotland deserves a top class national stadium. It’s got a sentimental, nostalgic stadium. That’s not good enough. Because fans are more sophisticated than they ever were.”

He’s an advocate of supporters agitating for change, and believes they hold the key to stopping companies taking Scottish football for a loan.

Topping’s had his say on Sky, BT and the BBC under-valuing the game north of the Border, and with media rights soon to be re-negotiated, is hopeful more pressure can be applied. He’s aghast at the lack of investment in Scottish football, the people’s game, from large companies making money from the country.

“It is ridiculous we have had nearly 50 years of North Sea oil and not one large sponsorship from any of the large oil companies in Scottish football. Do I think they should have done that? Yes. Aberdeen have not had a significant oil sponsor, which is madness. It’s insufferable that’s been the case.

“Fans will waken up to the fact their contribution to the success of Sky or BT is not being properly recognised in the amount of money being invested in the Scottish game, which is derisory compared to what it should be. The best hope for the Scottish game? It’s in the activity the fans bring to bear on big organisations.

“The last thing Sky or BT want to see is criticism on Twitter, fans at football grounds deriding them. Fans don’t quite realise yet how much change they can bring about.”

Like many who hold or have held high office, Topping’s contributions might not be appreciated until some time after he’s gone.

But he isn’t leaving Scottish football behind in his retirement. He’s looking forward to pondering which game to go to every Saturday and will be influenced, in the first instance, by benign feelings towards Stephen Thompson, the Dundee United chairman.

“After August 1, my first match will be at Dundee United, I think,” he says. “Stephen Thompson has gone through a torrid time. We talk a lot. He must have the biggest phone bill in Scotland. He likes to talk. I think I will go there, to wish them well for the season.

“After that, who knows?”

He is relishing the very serious responsibility of introducing his youngest grandson, nine-year old Euan, to Scottish football, with a perhaps unlikely ground featuring 
high on the list of possible destinations.

“I will take him to a magical place,” says Topping. “I’m trying to think what that will be. If I could get a ticket, I’d take him to Tynecastle – it’s the most atmospheric stadium I’ve ever been to watch league football.

“Or maybe slip quietly into a Dunfermline game.

“He will enjoy it,” he adds. “I defy anyone not to enjoy live Scottish football.”