The Scottish Premier League faces reorganisation again, but this time its leaders are determined to make a more permanent mess. Gary Oliver is unimpressed
Saturday afternoon football coverage on BBC Radio Scotland concludes with Off The Ball, a generally frivolous phone-in. Far from jovial, though, was a recent guest appearance by Roger Mitchell, chief executive of the Scottish Premier League.
Clearly expecting to busk what is normally a light-hearted half hour, the mid-Atlantic Mitchell was woefully ill prepared as supporters of lower division sides berated him and the coterie of clubs that has hijacked Scottish football. Faced with callers better informed than himself – he falsely claimed that Cowdenbeath had hitherto enjoyed voting power equal to Rangers – Mitchell’s increasingly desperate defence of the SPL veered from being illogical to downright offensive.
His lamentable performance was part of a media blitz, carefully timed just days before the SPL board met to sanction a 12-team division from season 2000-01 (the formal announcement is expected around mid-February). But that gathering was also expected to pull up the ladder, ruling out for the foreseeable future any further expansion. Rather than wait for stricken First Division clubs – all of whom plead for a top league of 16 teams – to protest, Mitchell decided to get his retaliation in first.
The putative change will discharge last year’s SPL commitment to a top league of at least 12. But that promise was merely a sop to nullify First Division opposition to their breakaway; the expected change to a 12-team league, which splits into two sixes for the latter part of the season, will be prompted by expedience rather than principle.
Consequently, those cash-conscious Premier boards whose clubs finish in the lower six will lose two sell-outs against Rangers and Celtic for the compensation of only slightly greater security. It is supporters, however, who are again the most likely losers. If, as seems certain, relegation is suspended next season, fans of most Premier League clubs will pay top dollar for glorified friendlies. Much more worrying for those who follow the lower leagues, though, is that the clubs promoted by the SPL will not necessarily be those finishing first and second in the First Division; teams placed much lower may instead make up the dirty dozen.
Because, as Roger Mitchell gleefully reminds us, the SPL has a door policy of 10,000 covered seats and adequate (whatever that means) pitch protection to which all aspirants must adhere. Put bluntly: no riff-raff. Nothing revelatory in that. But it is their complete lack of encouragement, and the relish with which they place obstacles in the way of less fortunates, that makes the SPL and its chief executive so utterly contemptible.
For instance, just when an intriguing three- or four-way contest was developing for this season’s First Division championship, Mitchell piped up condemning the dilapidated homes of Falkirk and Ayr United, announcing that each club would be wasting its time winning the title. It was surely no coincidence that the form of both of these sides promptly collapsed.
The few serious candidates for the top division that do not already conform are all in the tortuous process of trying to relocate. Yet still Mitchell obstinately refuses to countenance any temporary ground-sharing arrangement. The SPL’s stance is both mystifying and hypocritical: Celtic decamped to Hampden Park for 1994-95, having failed to comply in time with the Taylor recommendations. And even now, Dundee have been given until July to upgrade Dens Park, still a shrine to exposed bench seating.
Roger Mitchell offers no justification for the double standard, other than parroting the need to now “draw a line in the sand”. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he was less reticent after viewing a TV clip from Stranraer, unwisely denouncing the First Division club’s ground as “appalling, a woeful result of people being complacent in the last”. Obviously not a regular at Stair Park, the supercilious Roger failed to realise that the camera was in fact sited in a new £600,000 stand large enough to accommodate the entire Stranraer support.
Not that he cares about such initiatives. For as Mitchell deathlessly proclaimed on Radio Scotland, “Talk about community clubs and Corinthian spirit all you like, but keep it well away from what we in the SPL are trying to do.” Listening to iconoclastic Mr Mitchell, one wonders whether the breakaway had any purpose other than to shaft the rest of Scottish football. Rather apt, then, that the face and voice of the SPL should go by the name of Roger.
From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month