Mitchell principles

Roger Mitchell has left the Scottish Premier League, his departure mourned by just about nobody. Paul Hutton rushes to join the chorus of disapproval

It must be open season on football administrators. Just a couple of weeks after Adam Crozier took his leave from the FA, Roger Mitchell, chief executive of the Scottish Premier League, is handing in the keys to the company car.

But while Crozier’s departure seems to have been regarded by the press as regrettable, the Scottish sporting media have relished taking turns at metaphor­ic­ally kicking Mitchell’s diminutive frame around the block. Before he’d even managed to gather up his exec­utive toys or make a run on the stationery cupboard, every Scottish paper had laid into him with some abandon. It’s hardly been an edifying sight, and was very nearly enough to evoke a twinge of sympathy (not an emotion I was expecting to feel).

Still, you can hardly blame them – you might ask why they didn’t have a pop while he was still in office, but that’s another issue. After four and a half years in what was presumably a pretty hot seat, Mitchell leaves the SPL in a right old state. The television deal they signed at the start of this season is worth roughly a third of the previous one. Attendances are down across the board. The 12 member clubs have a collective debt of £140 million and ten of them are currently serving out their two-year notice of resignation.

That’s just the recent events, but if you look further back the picture doesn’t get any rosier. When he was appointed, Mitchell told anyone who would listen how innovative the new league would be. We could expect to witness all-star games and cross-border competitions – thankfully, neither materialised. We did get the replacement of reserve football with an Under-21 league (which means fringe players and those returning from injury rarely get the chance to play a match) and the requirement of a 10,000-seat stad­ium for league membership. While no one would deny that many Scottish grounds needed (and in many cases still need) upgrading, this rule has resulted in more than a few clubs spending bey­ond their means to build grounds of a size that only a handful would ever actually fill with any sort of regularity.

I will concede that not all the blame for these problems can be laid at Mit­chell’s door. The minimum seating requirement, for example, is a fond favourite of club chairmen intent on maintaining SPL membership. But even if you leave aside the occasional gaffe – he suggested ear­lier this year that anyone who thought Partick Thistle would cope in the Premier League had been “smoking dope” – you are still left with a picture of a man who looks out of his depth.

Again, no one would deny that the TV deal the SPL signed with Sky four years ago brought in a lot of cash, but it was signed at the high point of Sky’s largesse – just about anyone could have negotiated it. With the media rights mar­ket starting to crumble Mitchell tried to play hardball with Sky earlier this year and, predictably, lost. While his planned response, for the league to set up its own TV station, might be forward thinking and a model for the future, no one beyond Mitchell and some consultants seem­ed to think it could be a success at this time. And ultimately, you can’t help feeling that a chief executive has to take some of the blame when things go this badly wrong.

You might think that someone with that record of success might not have much more wisdom to offer, but you’d be mistaken. At the press conference confirming his resignation Mit­chell stuck to the view that his four years had been, pretty much, a suc­cess, though he also said he felt that the way forward for Scottish foot­ball would involve one single organisation running all aspects of the game. Quite how forming the SPL, which created a third organisation, might have helped achieve this goal wasn’t made clear. But if nothing else, at least it looks as though he’s leaving office with his sense of irony intact.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month