Dual liability

Dianne Millen reports on an attempted Scottish breakaway

Reports of the demise of the Scottish Football League (SFL) appear greatly exaggerated. Member clubs have overwhelmingly rejected the controversial proposal to create a second Scottish Premier League division – imaginatively entitled “SPL2”.

Driven by a clutch of the larger First Division clubs, talk of a breakaway in some form has been ongoing for over a year. This latest proposal, however, was the most detailed and extensive yet. The Scottish Premier League (SPL) kicked off matters last August when it invited ten SFL clubs to form the SPL2, beginning in summer 2008. A working party was set up to investigate this project and its report, laid before a meeting of the 30 SFL clubs at the end of April, recommended opening talks with the SPL about the practical steps needed for restructure. Another resolution recommended approaching the Scottish Football Association (SFA) to arbitrate the ongoing dispute over how the £1.6 million compensation paid to the lower-league clubs by the SPL (as a condition of its formation) might be distributed in the event of a breakaway.

However, despite the vocal support for change from some quarters, most notably Livingston chairman Pearse Flynn and Dundee’s Davie McKinnon, only eight of the 30 SFL clubs (five of which were from the First Division) voted in favour of the restructuring. The arbitration proposal was passed and talks are expected to commence within a month. Although most attendees were reluctant to go into specifics, Alloa owner Mike Mulraney implied that the dominant view was that the SFL should revitalise itself rather than turning to the SPL for assistance.

The other proposals discussed at the meeting, to redistribute existing funds and restructure commercially, “will lead to an invigoration of the SFL”, he suggested. “The 30 clubs represent the length and breadth of Scotland and we’ve got something to sell.” Conversely, Livingston chief executive Vivian Kyles felt that the vote simply indicated a desire to resolve the compensation dispute before deciding on restructure and that the SPL2 proposal would be back on the table, with the other five First Division clubs ready to support it once this had been achieved.

Whether change is evolutionary, as Mulraney proposes, or the revolution favoured by Flynn, some variant now seems inevitable. The “breakaway” clubs might go anyway, pending a legal opinion on what notice is required under the rules; this opinion may also drive a reconsideration of SPL2. Even if neither option is taken, it is hardly surprising that, at the very least, the clubs want to improve the management of the SFL, given that they had neither a TV deal nor a sponsor this season. While the football may not be silky at this level, it is competitive and entertaining. Compare Gretna beating St Johnstone to the title with the last kick of the last game with the inevitable Old Firm walkover that is the SPL and it deserves more attention and support.

Some of the reasons for this commercial lethargy were described in a report commissioned by the SFL themselves earlier this year, which brutally criticised an over-staffed, bureaucratic organisation lacking business acumen. Although senior SFL officials rejected the report, with president John Smith claiming, somewhat implausibly, that the league was “the best administrative organisation in the UK”, there is a palpable sense of frustration among the bigger clubs with the recent commercial stagnation. Whatever is ultimately decided on SPL2, the SFL are likely to come under increasing pressure to change their own governance.

Equally, however, as Mulraney points out, the SFL are a diverse federation, encompassing smaller, part-time clubs such as Arbroath and Queen of the South as well as the bigger outfits with full-time professional players such as St Johnstone and Livingston – but with each having the same voting power, as democracy rightly requires. It is questionable that a single organisation can continue to represent all their interests, especially when the SPL are dangling such a sizeable carrot at the larger clubs; according to reports, the SPL2 clubs could find themselves four times better off. Clydesdale Bank has also declared itself willing to sponsor the new division. One hopes, however, that the interests of the smaller outfits will not be forgotten and that the opportunity is taken to restructure and renew in a way that benefits all levels of the game.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month