Andrew Milligan/PA Wire via AP
The return of football has become a key talking point across Europe as countries begin to lift coronavirus restrictions, with mixed results, across the continent.
Though France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have all advocated abandoning the 2019-20 season, Germany’s top flight will be the first major league in Europe to return to competition this weekend.
In the UK, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) seems destined to follow the former countries, ending the season prematurely, after a vote by clubs.
But circumstances surrounding the decision have included accusations of bullying and calls for an independent inquiry.
How did we get here?
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Football in Scotland, at both professional and grassroots level, was suspended on March 13 following the UK government’s announcement of measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
On 8 April, the SPFL then balloted clubs about ending competitive football in tiers 2-4 of the league system and awarding places based on an average points basis. The resolution also proposed the option of ending the Scottish Premier League it the remaining 49 fixtures could not be played.
By 18.00 (CET) the league had received 39 responses from the 42 clubs, 85% of which were in favour of abandoning competition. But the league was still waiting for clubs to submit a response.
The SPFL eventually stated that the resolution has been passed by 81% of all clubs, meaning that league titles were awarded.
“What has been agreed today is not just the best way forward, it was the only realistic way forward and I now call on all 42 clubs to move forward in a constructive and positive way,” said SPFL Chairman Murdoch MacLennan in a statement.
But the result of the vote and its premature publishing caused widespread controversy.
Dundee’s decisive vote missing
One club, Dundee, had intended to submit a ‘no’ vote to the resolution, which would have been pivotal to the final decision.
But “despite being electronically submitted, for whatever reason, our vote did not reach the centre (SPFL)”, Dundee said in a statement.
The club noted that this raised an “immediate red flag” and they also discovered that at least two other top-flight clubs had modified their position on the vote from previous meetings.
But the club has also made it clear that their vote did not change, as has been reported by some news outlets.
The SPFL have said they proceeded with the vote based on written instruction that the club did not want to vote.
Dundee says that they believe the SPFL has made mistakes in the decision process, by “not taking into consideration any financial fallout to their member clubs and publishing of the incomplete ballot results”.
A number of other clubs have also been left unsatisfied with the decision and a feeling of mistrust has circulated in Scottish football.
Rangers, who were second in the Premier League, have said the SPFL has conducted a “misleading and deeply flawed” process and that “no fair-minded person can take the outcome of this vote seriously”.
The Glasgow-based club has also taken issue with the decision to publish the outcome of the decision before all clubs had voted, which they say has “undermined the democratic process and demonstrated unacceptable standards of corporate governance by the SPFL Executive”.
“We are [also] extremely concerned that member clubs were not provided with enough information, or time, to allow them to make fully informed decisions.”
Rangers also say that several club directors have claimed they were “bullied” and have requested an independent investigation into the conduct of the SPFL executive.
While the SPFL have already investigated the voting process, Rangers have said that only an internal investigation would provide “satisfactory, credible answers”, and have called for SPFL officials to be suspended.
“In the past few days, we have become alarmed at a seeming lack of even-handedness and fair play from the SPFL,” said Rangers’ Interim Chairman, Douglas Park.
“This is surely unacceptable and, if substantiated, must be remedied.”
“Other member clubs, who have seen the evidence [of a whistelblower] we hold, share our concerns.”
Rangers were, however, criticised for their actions, with suggestions that the club may have ulterior motives for an investigation.
But calls for an independent investigation into the SPFL was also tabled for motion in the UK’s Parliament by DUP MP for Londonderry East, Gregory Campbell. Other UK MPs have branded the situation an “embarrassment”.
Clubs decide against an investigation
On 24 April, Rangers released another statement outlining their complaints in full and called for an emergency vote for an independent investigation.
These complaints included;
- The decision to announce the result of an incomplete vote before all votes had been receivedThe decision to disregard the vote submitted by Dundee FCThe interaction of SPFL executives with clubs during the voting process including the disclosure to clubs of how other member clubs had voted
Other clubs have also appealed against the lack of time that clubs were given to discuss and vote on a resolution to restructure Scottish football’s league system after the pandemic.
An expansion of the top division from 12 teams to 14 teams would mean two clubs – Hamilton Academical and Heart of Midlothian – would avoid relegation.
“It is fundamentally wrong that any club should be unfairly penalised by exceptional decisions that have had to be taken to deal with the current crisis,” said Hearts Chairman, Ann Budge.
On Tuesday, Scottish football held the extraordinary meeting, with the support of 32 out of 42 football clubs needed to pass the resolution for an investigation in the SPFL
Only thirteen clubs backed the motion, with 27 against and two abstaining.
“The last few weeks have been bruising ones for many people in our game. Far too many words have been spoken and written which have sown anger and division amongst clubs,” the SPFL chairman said in a statement.
“It’s now incumbent on all clubs to put their differences aside, otherwise we will all suffer together.”
“We simply cannot afford the distraction of further infighting or legal challenges. I’m sure we can all agree that the quicker we get back to playing football, the better.”
The outcome of no investigation was also welcomed by Celtic, leaders of the Scottish Premier League.
“We are satisfied that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the [SPFL] board or executive and do not consider that such an inquiry is necessary,” said the Glasgow club.
“The board and executive of the SPFL have operated under circumstances of unique difficulty in dealing with challenges of an unprecedented nature.”
But Rangers have released another statement arguing that the vote should not be regarded as an endorsement of the SPFL executive.
“A light has been shone on the SPFL’s governance and regardless of the attempts to debunk our report, there is widespread acknowledgment that it highlighted serious issues and failings which remain to be addressed.”
Rangers say that a culture against accountability and scrutiny in Scottish football must be addressed.
“It is clear that many members have lost confidence in the SPFL leadership and the need for change will not diminish. The status quo cannot hold.”
What happens next?
A number of teams have spoken of exploring all possibilities of legal action, including the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.
But following Tuesday’s vote, it seems imminently likely that Celtic will be declared champions of the Scottish Premiership, their ninth consecutive championship, as the 2019-20 season is abandoned.
It is nevertheless a fact that 13 clubs in Scotland – more than 30% of all teams represented by the SPFL – have expressed serious doubts in the executive and wanted an inquiry into their actions.
On top of this, an insolvency report into British football has found that the coronavirus pandemic has “thrown the future health of football clubs across Scotland into danger”.
“The longer we are unable to play matches in Scotland, the more essential will be significant financial support for our hard-pressed national sport,” said Neil Doncaster, SPFL Chief Executive.
The majority of words within Scottish football now seem to be focused on the future, after an ugly episode for the league and its executive.