THE surroundings were more serene – the serenity of Gleneagles as opposed to the intensity of Hampden – but Stewart Milne’s words carried as much passion on Friday sitting in his house as he did on Monday when railing outside the national stadium.
He is talking about league reconstruction – what else? – and the dangers for the domestic game. “We all had concerns about certain aspects of 12-12-18, but if we wait for something that nobody has any concerns about then we’ll all be dead and Scottish football will be dead. I see some parallels in football with the coal industry and shipbuilding because neither of them would move forward. They were hidebound by the way they were operated in the past and what happened? They all died.”
In the course of two hours Milne’s mood changes from funereal to hopeful and then back again. He says he has hasn’t given up on some kind of deal being done in time for next season but he doesn’t know where he’s getting his scintilla of positivity from. “Is there a will among the clubs to go again? I don’t know, but I don’t think we should give up. I think we need a short period where we can take a breather and then start talking again.”
Given what happened on Monday and some of the wounding words that were used then and subsequently, Milne reckons, with a touch of gallows humour, that Henry Kissinger might have to be sent for in order to mediate between certain parties. So we go back to the start of the week when the flak started flying in public, when the vote was lost and when Milne went on the attack. The Aberdeen chairman trained his guns on St Mirren counterpart Stewart Gilmour, accusing him of using red herrings to defeat the proposal, saying that his actions had put Scottish football in jeopardy “just because of their own selfish interests”. The game had been blown apart, said Milne, because of the “whims of one individual club”.
Four days later. Any regrets? “No, I don’t. There were things said with passion, anger and frustration but I don’t think I said anything that I need to apologise for. It won’t pose me any problem to go to into the St Mirren boardroom in a couple of weeks’ time when we play them. Perhaps the tone that was used could have been more measured but I was faced with an option of either ducking all you guys in the media or make good on a commitment that I would speak when I came out. I had no desire to speak, but I’d made that commitment. It had been a pretty robust meeting. Stewart has spoken about bullying. I don’t think having a robust and honest discussion is bullying.”
To listen to Milne is to understand how far apart Aberdeen, and others, are from St Mirren and, to a lesser extent, Ross County. There is an impasse here. During the week, Gilmour issued a statement outlining the reasons why his club voted the way they did, part of the explanation focusing on one of his bugbears, the 11-1 voting structure. The St Mirren chairman listed items that he said are covered by 11-1 and should not be, things like the U-21 rule, the season start date, squad size and salary capping. Milne says that none of these things requires an 11-1 vote and he was supported by sources at the SPL yesterday. This is where the “red herring” comes in. “Stewart [Gilmour] has given a misleading picture,” claims his counterpart.
Milne has taken stick for allowing the contentious 11-1 system to remain alive in the Scottish game. True or not – Celtic and Rangers have always said the latter – the 11-1 has always been seen as the protector of the Old Firm, their way of vetoing anything that they didn’t agree with, their way of keeping the other clubs under their thumb. When Rangers departed the SPL there was a meeting in Milne’s home of ten clubs – Celtic were not invited – and up for discussion was the removal of the 11-1. This was their chance to right the wrong. In Rangers’ absence, it was payback time.
“We’ve been portrayed as the club that blocked the change from 11-1, but it’s not nearly as simple as that. The resolution at the meeting in this house last year was to take everything out of 11-1 and make it 9-3 and there is no way in the world that Aberdeen and also Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United would ever take home gates [home clubs retaining all gate money] and one or two other items out of protected status. I stated Aberdeen’s case and there wasn’t even a vote on it so I’m not sure how we are supposed to have voted it down. We would have voted against it, though. As others would have. Had it gone to a vote, we would not have been alone.”
There are so many examples that illustrate how far apart these men are. Gilmour calls Aberdeen’s and Celtic’s offer to take 11-1 off the table for future league reconstruction discussions a “crumb” and Milne calls it a “huge concession, a major thing”. Gilmour says that the right decision was made on Monday and Milne says it was a non-decision. Gilmour said that the voting structure and the 12-12-18 format have always been big ticket items for St Mirren and that they signalled their concerns in a succession of meetings. Milne disputes that.
“I was angry and the big part of the anger was this non-decision making,” says Milne. “I’ve always been a great believer in life that nobody makes the right decisions all the time. In fact, a very high proportion of decisions you make are not necessarily the right ones. You always get things wrong but you only find out if they’re right or wrong by making them. When you make things happen then issues will emerge and you then sort them out. So we were saying let’s vote 12-12-18 through but let’s also change the voting structure so that if there are things we need to tweak then we’re in a position to do it more easily than the tortuous process we’ve gone through for years now.”
There is disagreement on Neil Doncaster, too. Gilmour has said that Doncaster should look at himself and ask whether he wants to carry on as chief executive when he has none of the power that a proper chief executive has. “I think some people have been unfair on Neil,” says Milne. “We have hung him out to dry.”
Doncaster was unable to explain to the likes of St Mirren what the cash value of reconstruction would be to Scottish football. He mentioned that Sky and prospective sponsors liked the look of the 12-12-18 but he couldn’t tell the clubs what that actually meant in financial terms. Without this information, St Mirren had a problem. Gilmour said during the week that people were accusing him of killing nirvana but stated that nobody knew what nirvana was because Doncaster didn’t have the numbers to support the claim that 12-12-18 was going to produce significant extra revenue.
“The reality in life is that Sky are probably the hardest people that anybody would ever want to have any dealings with,” says Milne. “If you go to them with a whole heap of ifs and maybes you are absolutely slaughtered. The only way you can negotiate with Sky is when you’ve got a done deal in your league format. You go there and you say ‘This is what the new set-up is, this is what is on the table, give us your best shot’. If you go to them with a half-baked plan you come out of there with a boot up your arse. They are the most ruthless organisation you could ever come across when it comes to negotiations. You need to say to them ‘The speaking has stopped and the action is ready to happen. This is what we believe we can deliver. What are you guys going to pay?’
“Sky have expressed interest. They have said that 12-12-18 is a lot more exciting than what we’re currently giving them but getting them to put pound notes to it is a totally different thing until there is something absolutely definite to be sold.”
Milne accepts that many of the SPL clubs have failed to sell 12-12-18 properly, including his own. “There’s been a pretty hostile reaction from the media towards it but that should have made us even more determined in pitching it. I mean, the alternative is the status quo, which nobody wants. Or three 14s, which is the option favoured by Stewart [Gilmour]. But let’s look at that. The split is 6-8. Top six, great. They’re playing meaningful games for the championship and for Europe. What about the bottom eight? If you have a team dislocated at the bottom, as we have had this season, you’re playing an awful lot of games in that eight that could be meaningless. Speaking just for Aberdeen in that scenario, our crowds would plummet, we wouldn’t be able to sell our corporate packages. Not only would you lose them for the end of that season, you try and sell season tickets for the following season. Incredibly difficult. Look, no plan was faultless but that 14-14-14 plan doesn’t hold water in my view.”
Where now? Henry Kissinger, Boutros Boutros Ghali, Kofi Annan. Get the three of them to Hampden and hope for the best. He smiles at the thought of it. “There’s something in the water in Scotland, I think. There’s a destructiveness. It’s in all of our interests to get back to the table and try to move forward but we seem to have a total inability to find a common goal.”
Their penchant for the own-goal remains, however.