Moira Gordon: Vindication? SPFL should hang their heads in shame

Whole episode an embarrassment for Scottish football

Hearts owner Ann Budge
Hearts owner Ann Budge

Following the findings of the arbitration process, the whole of Scottish football now has no alternative but to accept that the SPFL decision to demote Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer was not unlawful. Unpalatable and even unconscionable? Yes, to a large number of bemused, angry and frustrated onlookers that remains a more pertinent description. But, apparently, not unlawful.

It has been said that the law is an ass and in this case, despite proceedings taking place behind closed doors, its asinine qualities were front and centre.

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By all legal measurements, the selfish decision to call a halt to the league season was sound but, let’s be honest, the ruling wasn’t a pungent enough air freshener. The whole thing still stinks to high heaven. The perfect example of being right while wrong. It is like comparing tax evasion with tax avoidance. One may be lawful but, in the eyes of many, it doesn’t make it any less morally corrupt.

Monday’s decision was greeted by a smug statement from the SPFL hierarchy which, given the horrendous predicament they have left some of their members in, and the likely human cost due to unavoidable job losses, lacked class. It did nothing to express disappointment or regret that two of their members had felt so let down that they were compelled to take legal action and no real apology or recognition that the financial burden has fallen unfairly on the shoulders of three of their members, having sacrificed them for the greater good. It was not a statement likely to smooth the waters ahead of the next campaign. It was also selective in its interpretation of events.

“I am absolutely delighted that our approach has been vindicated throughout, following an intense period of legal scrutiny and review,” said SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster, pictured.

Vindicated? Vindication would have come from a show of confidence in the SPFL board’s ability to handle another mess such as the one dredged up by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, when a written resolution was circulated to clubs, suggesting power be transferred in the event of more Covid-related disruption, members denied them that authority.

Why? Possibly because they know what happened this summer was not right. It just suited them better than the alternatives at the time. They know that may not be the case when trouble rolls around and they are the ones sitting bottom of the table with eight games remaining. Suddenly reconstruction or seeing the season out may feel like a viable option after all.

“It is regrettable that the league had to be concluded in the way that it was,” said SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan. “However, despite calls to the contrary from some parties, subsequent events, including the virtual shutdown of our entire country for months, confirm that there was no viable alternative. With contact training only being allowed to resume on 29 June, it was simply impossible for games to be played or for season 2019-20 to continue.”

Simply not true. If that was the case the 2019-2020 Scottish Cup would have been voided. Instead the SFA has decided to see things to a conclusion, opting to streamline this season’s tournament.

That will be a major blow to the 60-odd clubs who miss out but at least everyone knows the parameters before a ball is kicked and the goalposts are not being moved during the contest. The league could have made the same decision if integrity and sportsmanship really meant something. But, this summer, only one thing spread quicker than the virus – self interest.

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So instead of finding a solution by which the league could be played out, people wailed about impracticalities and players being out of contract. But clubs start and finish seasons with different squads all the time, whether that be down to the January transfer window, injuries, managerial changes or the fact that loan deals and contracts expire midterm.

Television may have been the biggest obstacle – given that a streamlined season may mean fewer Old Firm clashes – but did anyone even raise the possibility or seek a similar solution?

Look at what we missed out on by not exploring all those options. In England there was drama right up to the last minute as teams battled for survival, for European places and their shot at moving up the ladder. And, in most cases, the final picture was very different from the one being painted with eight games to go. That is not to say that Hearts, Partick Thistle or Stranraer would have saved themselves but they should have been granted the opportunity to try. The fact they were not is the reason this season will always be an embarrassment for Scottish football.

Cynicism, sadly but understandably, coloured Hearts chairman Ann Budge’s statement, as she bemoaned the fact that “fellow member clubs and our governing bodies have stood back and allowed totally disproportionate financial damage to be imposed on three of its members”. She described it as shameful and she was spot on. She was also right to tackle their hypocrisy, fear and weakness.

“For too long, chairmen and owners have stood on the sidelines bemoaning the decision-making processes, the perceived lack of leadership, the lack of commercialism; the general shortcomings, as they see it, of Scottish football. However, if they really want things to change, it will take more than words. They will have to stand-up and be counted.

“Sadly, I see little cause for optimism that things will improve any time soon in Scottish football. I hope I am wrong.”

That must be everyone’s hope but it is likely to be forlorn. Lasting damage was done to the game this summer and, if the SPFL see any vindication in that, then they should hang their heads in shame.

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