Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Straining the meaning of 'consensus'

First published as SPL 'Agreement' Leaves Big Questions on the Sonstrust website.

The ‘broad’ agreement claimed by Scottish Premier League representatives for a 10-team top league and a second tier of 12 teams still leaves a huge amount of work to be done in producing a workable plan and securing the consent of the SFL, the SFA – and even four or five existing SPL members.

Despite claims of consensus, three clubs – Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hearts and Kilmarnock – made it clear at the meeting that they favoured a 14-team SPL. In addition, two of the six members of the Strategic Review Group and one other large club had expressed concern or uncertainty, with St Mirren hoping for consideration of the 14-team option, Dundee United keeping an ‘open mind’ until the last minute, and Motherwell also hesitating. St Johnstone had preferred a 12:10 (rather than 10:12) split.  Indeed, opposition to the original 10:10 proposal had actually grown since the BBC surveyed SPL clubs on 13 December 2010 and found only two opposed.

Talking to the BBC afterwards, SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster was forced to admit: “Clearly, when clubs haven’t got a detailed, finalised plan in front of them, then we need to understand that clubs want to reserve their final position.”

Meanwhile, “extremely disappointed” Inverness majority shareholder David Sutherland declared: “The fans have been ignored but in sport you have to take your defeats gracefully.  It’s a pity the 14-team wasn’t considered a little more seriously. We’ll get on with it but I think the SPL needs to take a good, long look at themselves and what they are doing to Scottish football.”

The media also remains sceptical, with the Scottish Daily Record mounting a rigorous push for a 14-team league, and The Scotsman reflecting the concerns of Gordon Smith and others about the impact of the current proposal – because, as Barry Anderson put it, “[small] leagues and repetitive fixture lists are not conducive to cultivating young footballing talent.”

However SPL executives are now going into spin mode and are set to continue their charm offensive in an effort to massage away dissent and exert pressure on those who have held out for alternatives, with finance rather than football appearing to be the main driver. (The Express describes their efforts so far as producing  “chaos and confusion”.)

After yesterday’s meeting at Hampden, Neil Doncaster claimed that the 10:12 plan was the “only way forward” – though his own organisation’s press release described it merely as the “preferred option”.
He additionally spoke of the need to benefit “the whole of Scottish football, not just the elite.”  But he did not spell out how his executive and the four main backers of the proposal (Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen) can legitimately claim to speak for Scottish football in its entirety (other bodies are only being “consulted”, says the SPL), or how lower league sides like Dumbarton, threatened with being diminished to regional training leagues for the use of ‘big’ clubs, are supposed to see this as an enhancement.

Doncaster also dismissed the concerns of the 88% of Scottish football fans who recently opposed the ten-team SPL in a Supporters Direct Survey -  which indicates that 93% of supporters feel they have not been properly consulted.

So while SPL executives are heavily implying that the outcome of the strategy meeting on 16 January is a ‘done deal’, the evidence – and the voting system maths -  suggests that the tussle will go on for weeks to come. “Kilmarnock’s position has not altered,” said chair Michael Johnston. “We are still opposed to a ten-team top division. Significant adjustments have to be made to the current proposals.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Football League offered a cautious response. Chief executive David Longmuir said: Until such time something is formalised or presented to us, we cannot comment. The SFL’s position hasn’t changed. We are open to change if it is for the good of all clubs in Scotland.”
For the 20 sides outside the top 22, the time for bold thinking about how to keep League football alive and kicking is now on.

Supporters Direct in Scotland is holding a meeting of Trust representatives on 23 January 2010 to consider ‘what next’ from the grassroots perspective. Sonstrust will be there, naturally.

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