League reconstruction plan enters critical stage

NINE months ago, Raith Rovers chairman Turnbull Hutton stood outside Hampden and labelled the Scottish Premier League a “dead parrot” as he railed against the manner in which they had passed the buck of Rangers’ financial crisis on to Scottish Football League clubs.

But it is remarkable the difference a few hundred thousand pounds can make to someone’s perception of an organisation. Suddenly, the SPL are the golden goose in Hutton’s eyes as he fears missing out on the cash incentive being dangled in front of him and the rest of the First Division clubs if they agree to a unified 12-12-18 league set up being put in place in time for next season.

That prospect receded yesterday at a lively five-hour meeting of 29 of the 30 SFL clubs yesterday – Dunfermline were absent as they dealt with their entry into administration – which saw a split emerge between First Division outfits and the rest.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

The outcome is a bid to persuade the SPL to delay implementation of the new structure for a year, bringing it into force for the start of the 2014-15 campaign and allowing sufficient time for due diligence to be undertaken on what would be a seismic shift for league football in Scotland.

But Hutton does not believe that the new financial distribution model which has been outlined by the SPL, significantly increasing the monies on offer to the current First Division clubs, is a moveable feast.

“I think there is a failure of understanding or a naivete to say we can negotiate something which will take place a year from now,” said Hutton. “The whole circumstances could be vastly different a year from now.

“I’m sure the offer could be off the table by then. There is obviously a split between those clubs that would like change to be implemented now and those that would like change to be implemented a year from now.

“Although there is an agreement that change is required and wanted, the issue seems to be a disagreement of timing. We have been clear right from the start that we saw what was on the table [from the SPL] as a good deal.

“It is the best opportunity, a window of opportunity for Scottish football. So we’ve been clear right from the start that we would go for change now. From that point of view, I’m disappointed with the way it went today and it leaves a confusing message in terms of what gets fed back to the SPL clubs.

“The SPL have moved a long way, in terms of what’s on offer. There seemed to be a willingness within the SPL and certainly the First Division clubs in the SFL that we were all talking the same language. But there is obviously a body that for various reasons would prefer a delay. The reality is that what is on offer is on offer now. There isn’t an offer there that says we can pick it up in a year’s time.

“Clubs are keen on change, but just not now. That to me isn’t a viable position, frankly. Someone was pointing out that by next season there might be different directors, owners and boards. So you could convene a meeting next year, but those people will have no history of where we’ve been this year.

“Everything was right, I thought, to implement some change, but for a variety of reasons it hasn’t happened. There was an offer on the table that hasn’t been taken up, so I would have thought that offer, if it has not been taken up, is no longer on the table and somebody has to start again.”

Hutton and several other First Division representatives gathered for their own impromptu meeting shortly after the general meeting concluded, doubtless assessing their options following what was a clear setback to their hopes of playing in an initially more lucrative environment next season.

There was a more measured tone from those in the lower tiers of the SFL, with Annan Athletic chairman Henry McClelland articulating their desire for a less hasty approach to such a critical issue.

“We are still in the same situation as we were this morning,” said McClelland. “We believe that it shouldn’t be rushed, we should take a bit more time, and that with a reasonable timetable a further season would be enough to get everything implemented that we need to implement. I think that’s where we sit.

“I wouldn’t say it was an acrimonious meeting. It was very constructive. We got a lot more information shared which was important. It’s a complicated process and there is a lot to take in, a lot to understand, and there was a lot of information delivered today. It’s moving, but it has to be done in a timely manner. That’s where we stand. Hopefully we will get there in the end for the good of the game because the game is in a terrible state, but it has to be done right.

“I don’t know why we are being pressed to rush it through by some people. I can’t answer that. It’s a question we ask ourselves, too, when we meet as a club. We don’t know, we can’t answer, we don’t know the reason. I would rather go through the process in a structured manner rather than be rushed into it and I think there is still a great chance that we can do that and I hope that is the case. I hope it unfolds that way.”

For SFL chief executive David Longmuir, the man charged with guiding two now clearly defined opposing camps within his organisation towards a solution, the next few weeks promise to be the most challenging of his tenure, but he remained upbeat.

“When you are faced with the fear of the unknown, which is definitely an issue here, what we need to do is take away the concern about these unknown quantities,” said Longmuir.

“We have been working hard behind the scenes, as you would with any merger, to get it in place properly. It needs to serve the game well and bring as many people with you. I would hope that fans would also engage with the progress and just take a bit more time.

“There is nobody against change; we all know that we need to do it for the better of the game. But if it’s right today then it’s not beyond us all to agree that we’ll stick together on it for a year.

“Clearly, there are differences of opinion on what can and cannot be achieved for next season. On that basis, we have come out of the meeting in a fairly positive vein in that we are fully supportive of the change agenda. The key issue is clearly timing and if we can get round that and work together on that, then the changes that we want to see in Scottish football can happen.

“There is not one specific reason why some clubs do not want it in place next season. We are working very closely on the rules and articles of association. We are also looking very clearly at a due diligence process on the finances of the combined ­organisations.

“That takes time. There is work to be done on that. We have made good progress, but we are only bringing the SFL clubs up to speed today. We are moving at a pace not normally known in football, as you might be aware, but we are doing our best to deliver the change that Scottish football expects and ­deserves.

“It’s only fair that we give clubs time. We are binding ourselves together as a new organisation and we are not far away from getting back to that single organisation that we all think serves the game best. Give us time and I think we have a great chance of delivering something really good for the game.”