Coronavirus: Scottish football’s huge dilemma as clubs vote on proposal to end season for most

Blind faith is in danger of taking over Scottish football. As dilemmas go, the one facing the 42 SPFL clubs just now is as large as it gets.

The SPFL board’s decision to ask clubs to vote on a resolution to end the season in three of the four divisions, and potentially end the Premiership season, has placed clubs under massive pressure. At the heart of the debate are the simple building blocks of the game – financial security and sporting integrity – but for some, this is about pure existence.

  • SPFL clubs to vote on ending season below Prem
  • Scottish football suspension extended to June 10
  • Rangers label SPFL proposals ‘abhorrent’

It should be noted first that the 2019-2020 Scottish football season is, essentially, irrelevant right now, considering the grim picture in the world. Sport has become, for many, hugely insignificant during the coronavirus outbreak; as one club chairman put it, “there are far more important things to worry about – it’s disgraceful we are even talking about this.”

Nevertheless, Scotland’s football authorities have a duty to find a solution to the fixture pile-up, and are allowing its members to determine the future of the league season, opening the biggest can of worms since 2012 when votes took place over the fate of Rangers after their financial collapse.

The SPFL board’s proposal – to terminate the league season, and make current positions final, while scrapping play-offs – was never going to unite the clubs. With only hours remaining until clubs must show their hands (they are being encouraged to vote by the end of Good Friday), indications are the resolution may fall at the first hurdle.

Thursday’s decision by the Scottish FA to continue the suspension of all football in Scotland until at least June 10 came as no surprise, but its timing could not have been more prescient. The SFA’s Chief Medical Officer and the Scottish Government have been briefing football authorities regularly since the start of the pandemic, and clubs knew last week there was little likelihood of competitive football before mid-summer. Now that news is official, it seems this season is looking like a write-off.

What would happen if the proposal is passed?

That feeling is almost unanimous across the divisions, but greater opposition comes from the way in which the SPFL board are pitching their proposals.

If passed, it would mean relegation for Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer, the clubs sitting bottom of the Premiership, Championship and League One respectively. All three have, unsurprisingly, declared they will reject the proposals, and feel more talk is required. In their view, the SPFL are pushing for action without the full facts.

“This is a huge decision for all of Scottish football – I feel it needs to be discussed very widely, but we haven’t had the opportunity to do that,” said Hearts owner Ann Budge.

“We believe the proposal requires significantly more discussion, scrutiny and debate before any vote can be taken,” said a Partick Thistle statement on Wednesday.”

“It just seems very harsh on two or three clubs taking the full force of this,” said Stranraer Chairman Iain Dougan.

So far, so predictable – more discussion is fine, but only if there are more ideas on the table. Self-preservation is inevitable when sitting bottom of the league, but teams near the top are unhappy too. Dispensing with the play-offs rules out promotion for all except the league leaders – Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers. Nine teams in play-off places, and others in contention, will have their chance of a glorious finale snatched away.

Opposition coming not just from SPFL clubs

Outside the SPFL, there is opposition from those clubs striving to get in. The proposal would prevent a team from the Highland League – Brora Rangers – or the Lowland League – likely to be Kelty Hearts or Bonnyrigg Rose – being promoted to the SPFL; Brechin City, currently bottom of League Two, would survive if the vote passes.

“What’s the point in having a pyramid system in Scotland for the Lowland League and Highland League clubs to try and get into the SPFL, if this is all going to be scrapped?”, said former Rangers and Scotland captain Barry Ferguson, now the manager of Kelty Hearts. “You can’t relegate Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer, and not relegate Brechin – or at least put them into a playoff game. There are some big decisions to be made.”

The voting structure complicates matters further. 75 per cent of clubs in each division need to approve the resolution for it to be passed – nine clubs in the Premiership,eight in the Championship, and 15 of the 20 League One and Two clubs. The feeling is that while the lower two divisions might garner enough votes, the top two divisions are likely to rebel.

It is the Championship where opposition is strongest. While Partick’s push back is obvious, the lucrative prize of top-flight football could be snatched away from Inverness and Dundee, sitting second and third behind runaway leaders Dundee United.

Thus far, both clubs have remained silent, but an educated guess is that neither will approve. Dundee have the added incentive of trying to remain in the same league as their city rivals; if three clubs in the Championship vote “no”, the motion fails.

Will the SPFL bring forward end-of-season payments?

Across the divisions, most clubs are keen to end the season now, primarily due to financial considerations. With no prospect of any income for months, the part-time clubs of League One and League Two are desperate for their end of season payouts to balance the books. The SPFL’s promise of immediate financial support will sway many – but perhaps not enough for it to be ratified just now.

Money talks, but so too does clarity, and there is little to be had in this unfortunate situation. The great unanswerable unknown of when football will recommence terrifies club directors, but some are preaching caution. Rangers and Hearts both feel more talking can be done, but with the cash being dispensed now. “We propose a resolution that would release prize money to be distributed to all clubs in Scotland urgently – we believe that this is the priority”, said a Rangers statement on Wednesday.

Rangers have a representative on the SPFL board, but they are also not enamoured by what is being offered and their counter-proposal was rejected on Friday morning. The Ibrox club quickly responded and confirmed their proposal would be tweaked and resubmitted as soon as possible.

Champions-elect Celtic are conspicuous by their silence, in part because they have much to gain, but also potentially much to lose. The Old Firm are united in one factor – the title should be decided over a 38-game season. If it can’t be, handing a title without having mathematically won it will stick in the craw for some supporters, and give others a chance to put a virtual asterisk next to the fabled ninth title in-a-row.

Regardless of these arguments over bragging rights, Celtic also have European anxieties linked to the final part of the SPFL’s proposal. Delaying the end of the Premiership to provide maximum opportunity for games to be played is now, after Thursday’s Scottish FA proclamation, a forlorn hope, but it is also a stalling tactic. The SPFL might perhaps have declared a termination across all four divisions already, were it not for UEFA’s threat last week that leagues ending early could forfeit European places.

So when will the final decision be made official?

April 23 is now when the top flight’s fate will probably be decided – the date when UEFA will determine whether to give leagues permission to end their season. It seems inevitable they will, and once that green light shines, the SPFL board will act. The two-week period between now and then gives dissenting clubs a chance to propose amendments and put pressure on the board to debate league reconstruction.

This is not a new topic; Scottish football has tied itself in knots over the years with arguments around the structure of the leagues. The SPFL have promised to engage in discussions once again, and the lower down the ladder one goes, the more clubs one can find enthused about an enlarged league. Yet it is extremely difficult to see teams in the Premiership being keen on divisional reconstruction.

Ultimately many feel the solution to this quandary – perhaps with some amendments – will only be found when enough clubs park self-interest at the door, and realise the danger Scottish football may face if a decision isn’t made soon. With most players and staff at clubs now either furloughed or having taken wage cuts or deferrals, the pressure is on the executives to provide some light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’ve contracts and cash-flow to think about. People who vote against this are maybe either condemning themselves to going out of business, or maybe condemning other clubs to go out of business.

“The word “integrity” has been floated around by some people; integrity to me is looking after all the clubs in this league and ensuring the future of Scottish football,” said Bill Clark, the Chairman of Raith Rovers – top of League One and primed for promotion if the vote is passed.

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