Firm rebuttal

Ken Gall gives a resounding cheer for the exasperated Scottish Premier League chairmen who finally stuck two fingers up at Rangers and Celtic

To anyone who says that there are no surprises left in Scottish football, the events of April 16 will have been the cause of some bemusement. In what might seem at first glance to be the equivalent of the Christians expelling Jesus from Christianity, all the Scottish Premier League clubs, with the exception of Celtic and Rangers, gave notice of their intention to resign en masse from the league in two seasons’ time, leaving Glas­­gow’s much-loved double act, not for the first time, in a world of their own.

Whether this was merely the latest bargaining ploy in the wearying debate concerning Scot­tish football’s broadcasting rights, or whether Rangers’ and Celtic’s domination of the soon-to-be two-club SPL was to be­come even more singular, remained to be seen. But fans of the ten could, for once, enjoy the sense that their clubs had not simply allowed the over­bearing bul­lies to kick sand in their faces and then run away laughing.

While the impending collapse of ITV Digital had huge ramifications for the Nationwide League, north of the border – as ever – things were just a wee bit different. In England, the collapse of a TV station led to many clubs fearing chaos. In Scotland, the same chaos was created by the collapse of a TV station that did not even exist. The Old Firm’s last-minute decision to pull the plug on the proposed SPL TV channel proved to be the last straw for the chairmen of the ten, who watched 15 months of supposed unanimity on a broadcasting deal unravel in a matter of hours.

SPL TV was the league’s innovative response to the imminent end of their relationship with Sky who, quite understandably, had come to realise that Celtic v Ran­gers had a tad more appeal to the armchair punter than, say, St Johnstone v Motherwell and were revising their bid for SPL rights downwards accordingly. A subscription channel, carried by cable and satellite providers but owned and operated by the league itself, SPL TV seemed a genuinely far-sighted idea. While no one could absolutely guarantee its financial success, it would have allowed the clubs a more equal say in how the game was televised while diminishing the ability of broadcasters to hold them to ransom.

Unfortunately, the Old Firm have historically shown their ability both to ignore the common good and to rise above the mania of their hardcore followers where there is a buck to be made, and so it was to prove again. In the run-up to a vital meeting at Hampden Park at which the deal was to be finalised (having been worked on for over a year by all SPL clubs), stories be­gan to appear in the press suggesting that Celtic and Rangers had decided to scupper SPL TV. Citing “major reservations” about the deal – particularly the league’s projection of 200,000 potential subscribers – represent- atives of the Old Firm proceeded to deny the league the 11-1 majority needed to establish the station.

The chairmen of the ten, whose commercial activities already do not exclude looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, were left with the prospect of tearing up their medium-term financial projections, which were based on earnings from a TV deal that they thought was a fait accompli. Soon it became clear that the Old Firm were not satisfied even with that; they would be quite prepared to veto all television broadcasting of SPL football for next season unless the deal suited them. The hidden agenda – the big two’s wish to dispense with collective bargaining and to sell the rights to their own games to the highest bidder – was becoming more apparent.

Immediately, the usual stories about the impending defection of the Old Firm to England be­gan to ap­pear. Thwarted at every turn in their attempts to take part in an Atlantic league, the Eng­lish Prem­iership and the Worthington Cup, they now saw the Nationwide League’s impending financial melt­down as a possible way out of Scotland and, allowing for the surely inevitable promotion (as they saw it), a way into the Prem­iership. An impartial observer might wonder how many times these stories would trans­fix gul­lible hacks before they realised that the Old Firm’s threats to depart Scot­land always seemed to coincide with (a) new TV rights negotiations, or (b) impending share issues.

But, incredibly, the bluff was about to be called. Man­­agers of the ten had begun to make it clear that a future without the Old Firm was not only an option, but might even be preferable. Fans saw their departure as a chance for real competition to be returned to an SPL championship devoid of it for some years. And then, at a hastily rearranged second meeting, the chairmen of the ten did everyone proud. They told the Old Firm how things were going to be, and then left.

However, like an unhappy couple in a land where divorce is forbidden, the Old Firm and the ten – des­pite the mass resignation – will in all likelihood come to an agreement on TV and carry on as before, each sec­retly hoping for the other to expire. With Rangers’ debts putting them well on the way to becoming the Enron of Scot­tish football, and with Cel­tic’s share price tumbling – leaving aside the trifle of Scottish foot­ball’s al­leged cumulative debt of £200 million – that wait may not be too long. The question is: who goes first?

From WSC 184 June 2002. What was happening this month