Stephen Halliday: Easy to blame Neil Doncaster but look closer to home

Hearts owner Ann Budge with SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Hearts owner Ann Budge with SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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As Aberdeen and Hearts supporters rail against the Scottish Professional Football League’s seismic decision to stage both Betfred Cup semi-finals at Hampden on the same day, the immediate target for their fury is both inevitable and wearily predictable.

When controversies such as this emerge, SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster is paid handsomely for the privilege of becoming a human shield for the board of directors and 42 member clubs he serves.

It is easy to sympathise with punters angry at the prospect of having to get from the north-east of Scotland to Glasgow on Sunday 28 October for a noon kick-off, or make their way home to Edinburgh following the evening instalment of the unprecedented double-bill at the national stadium.

But it’s also too simplistic to lay the blame at the feet of Doncaster and SPFL director of operations Iain Blair, the men left to publicly sign off the solution to the semi-final fixture foul-up which has created such a furore.

For any decision made by the SPFL – or Scottish FA for that matter – there is a collective responsibility. But it’s one far too many chairpersons, chief executives or directors of our clubs will happily and conveniently shirk.

Hearts owner Ann Budge, who expressed her “astonishment” at the outcome of the talks in which she took part on Thursday, sat on the SPFL board for two years before being ousted this summer.

Duncan Fraser, the chief executive of Aberdeen who sanctioned the Pittodrie club’s statement criticising the semi-final kick-off time, was an SPFL board member from 2013 to 2016.

So both Budge and Fraser must presumably be fully aware that it is the nine-member SPFL board – democratically elected by all 42 members clubs at the organisation’s annual general meeting – who exercise authority in a situation of this nature. Just in case they need a reminder, here is the relevant passage from the official League Cup regulations:-

“In the event that any matter or thing shall arise in relation to the competition which is not provided for in these regulations or if any conflict shall arise between a matter provided for in the rules and these regulations, then the board shall be entitled to make whatever arrangements and determinations and give such directions to clubs and others as the board shall think appropriate in order to ensure the efficient operation and completion of the competition.”

The current SPFL Board is made up of Doncaster (CEO), Murdoch MacLennan (chairman), Karyn McCluskey (non-executive), Alan Burrows (Motherwell), Peter Lawwell (Celtic), John Nelms (Dundee), Warren Hawke (Morton), Martin Ritchie (Falkirk) and Iain Dougan (Stranraer). In rubber-stamping the decision, they had to take into account the League Cup’s contractual obligations which dictate that any semi-final involving Celtic or Rangers should, so long as deemed feasible by police, take place at the national stadium with 15 per cent of the gate receipts going to Hampden Park Ltd.

The option of staging the Hearts-Celtic semi on the weekend of 3 and 4 November, when the clubs are scheduled to meet on Premiership business in any case, was rejected by Police Scotland as it would have meant the Rangers-Aberdeen semi at Hampden on 28 October being played on the same afternoon as the Celtic-Motherwell league game at Parkhead.

There is, of course, also a significant financial consideration involved. The SPFL’s revenue in their most recent accounts was up more than 27 per cent to £34.6 million, largely driven by broadcasting and sponsorship deals. BT Sport’s exclusive television contract for the Betfred Cup ensures they have a major say, if not the last word, on when and where the games are played.

That is certainly unpalatable and inconvenient for many supporters who religiously follow their teams home and away. But instead of instinctively calling for the head of Doncaster, perhaps it is time for them to ask questions of those running their own clubs and who are part of the process when it comes to negotiating the commercial agreements.

Aberdeen fans, so often faced with those early kick-off times in Glasgow, might want to know if Fraser or chairman Stewart Milne has ever sought clauses in the contracts which could exempt the Dons from those slots in the TV schedule.

When the winter break was reintroduced and the League Cup format changed to bring the final forward to the first half of the season, did Ann Budge or anyone else raise concerns about the potential and highly likely impact in terms of fixture congestion?

When this season’s League Cup fixture schedule was presented to all clubs earlier this year, did anyone float the possibility that two Scottish clubs might reach the Europa League group stage and create the mess the SPFL were left to try to clear up this week?

There may be no shortage
of reasons to apportion blame for the emergence of an unprecedented situation which, with a little more foresight, might have been avoided. But the accountability also extends to many of those who are bleating the loudest.