Andrew Smith: Neil Doncaster told truth to power. Now action needed to save our game

SPFL chief must be applauded for standing up for Scottish football

SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster

Whatever the recent criticisms directed towards Neil Doncaster from any quarter – and, heaven knows, there has been plenty from this one for the SPFL chief executive and his organisation – it is surely indisputable that he stood up strongly, and properly, for Scottish football on Tuesday. And that his words must be heeded by those in power.

His warning that the “existential crisis” caused by the Covid-19 will necessitate government assistance to prevent the complete collapse of Scottish football wasn’t scaremongering. Frighteningly, it was a measured response to, as he put it, the “grave peril” our national sport finds itself in. The possibility that playing football matches in front of spectators could yet be seven months away, and indeed perhaps longer, really does raise the prospect of genuine Armageddon for the Scottish game. If that term is allowed following past misuse.

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Doncaster astutely pointed out that the UK government has pledged “£16m support to rugby league in England to prevent it from being devastated by Covid-19”. It led to a natural conclusion. “The longer we are unable to play matches in Scotland, the more essential will be significant financial support for our hard-pressed national sport,” he said.

What the SPFL chief executive wasn’t probably seeking to do in his statement that followed a virtual meeting with Joe FitzPatrick, the Scottish government’s Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, was expose the difficulties created by Scotland’s political relationship with the UK. The Westminster government could throw a bone to rugby league because, in terms of the fiscal black hole created by the necessary multi-billion pound spend to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, it amounts to loose change.

However, the Scottish government, in requiring to operate with a balanced budget because their revenue is delivered to them almost like pocket money in the form of a block grant, have no such financial latitude. This is a real issue for them as they seek to keep the show on the road in terms of devolved areas such as sport and culture, which will always be down the queue for any discretionary spending.

Again, as Doncaster made plain, the financial model that would allow for the majority of the clubs in the top two tiers in the English game to remain in the red even if they do not attract a single person through the gates for the next year – as is the doomsday scenario in their plan to restart next month – isn’t relevant to how football could operate north of the border.

It is estimated that, on average, around half of the revenue Scottish football clubs generate comes through gate receipts. In the coming season – whenever that might be and whatever form it might take – a new Sky television deal should mean around £30m flowing into the governing body’s coffers to be distributed between 42 senior clubs. In 2018-19, the 20 English Premier League clubs shared £2.45 billion in broadcasting spoils.

The humongous sum explains why there is an unseemly rush to complete the season down south, even as there has been no relaxation of the social distancing rules that insist every person must remain two metres away from any other with whom they do not share a dwelling. A directive expected to remain in place throughout 2020.

The English football authorities are seeking to circumvent what seems an insurmountable obstacle even to playing behind closed doors, through investing in testing and creating ‘bio-secure’ neutral venues to stage games. Moves that are calculated will produce a bill to the tune of £10m. Or, if you want to put it another way, a third of the entire broadcast revenue that the Scottish game is anticipating next season.

Essentially, for there to be a 2020-21 season, Scottish clubs that are haemorrhaging money currently, would require to slide further into debt simply to put games on without supporters. It just isn’t viable. No wonder that such as Elgin City chairman Graham Tatters, pictured, has expressed fears that up to a third of Scotland’s senior clubs could go to the wall the moment that the UK government winds down the job retention scheme, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has intimated he will begin to do as early as July.

How the Scottish government formulates a rescue plan that would allow senior football clubs to stay in business without being able to play games for up to a year isn’t immediately obvious.

It is obvious, though, that it is their duty to do so.

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