Stephen Halliday: Time for Ian Maxwell and SFA to show real leadership

The organisation which nominally runs football in this country has been conspicuous by its lack of visibility

Scottish Football Association chief executive Ian Maxwell has been conspicuously silent during the current crisis. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS

It has been said that real leaders are forged in crisis.

That maxim has perhaps resonated more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic as the mettle and authority of the world’s political leaders is tested as never before in the post-war era.

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Some have handled it with greater assurance and adroitness than others – for every Jacinda Ardern, the widely acclaimed New Zealand prime minister, then sadly there is also a Donald Trump.

Football’s place in the global health crisis is a minor one, of course, but the world’s biggest sport must also rely on its leaders to provide the guidance and strength of character necessary to find a way out of the current limbo which is threatening financial calamity for so many leagues and clubs.

In Scotland, it’s fair to say those at the helm of our national game have scarcely covered themselves in glory in the nine weeks since football was suspended. The omnishambles of the Scottish Professional Football League’s oversight of their season-ending resolution and the vote which passed it might easily provide the material for a Harvard Business School lecture to students on how not to manage a crisis.

SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan and chief executive Neil Doncaster may have survived the call from Rangers, Hearts and Stranraer for an independent investigation into the affair but they have nonetheless emerged from it with faith in their leadership diminished as far as many of the member clubs are concerned.

But, while MacLennan and Doncaster have been front and centre of the rancorous dispute which has done so much to tarnish the wider image of the Scottish game, the organisation which nominally runs the sport in this country has largely been conspicuous only by its lack of visibility.

The emasculation of the Scottish Football Association, which was lamented on these pages by former first minister Henry McLeish earlier this week, seems to be evidenced by the absence of any noticeable influence on the current crisis by its chief executive Ian Maxwell.

Barely a word has been heard from Maxwell during the past couple of months. So much so, even his predecessor Stewart Regan has enjoyed a higher profile in various media outlets as he offers his opinions on a way forward for a fractured Scottish football family. That’s not to suggest for a minute that Maxwell has been sitting on his hands all this time. He is a key member of the Joint Response Group liaising on a daily basis with medical experts and government officials in an effort to facilitate football’s return as swiftly, safely and practically as possible. It’s crucial work, most of it carried out behind the scenes and without fanfare.

But as he approaches the second anniversary of his appointment next week, the former Partick Thistle managing director may reflect that the time has come for him to step forward and be seen to take the leading role in arguably the greatest challenge Scottish football has ever faced.

Politically, it may have suited Maxwell to stay out of the limelight while the heat has been on the SPFL. In many ways, it’s a reversal of the situation which saw Doncaster barely seen or heard a couple of years ago while the SFA were copping all the flak and Regan ultimately lost his job after the botched attempt to appoint Michael O’Neill as the new Scotland manager.

This, though, isn’t a time for interpersonal politics on Hampden’s sixth floor. It’s a time for the world’s second oldest football association to show it still retains the will to impose its sovereignty and take back control of the sport it has been charged with promoting, fostering and protecting 
since 1873.

Covid-19 has exposed an alarming void in leadership at the top of Scottish football. The onus is on Maxwell to fill it.

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