'SPFL inquiry leads to more questions amid dire financial backdrop'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Hamilton Academical chairman Les Gray (left), is on the SPFL board and said claims of bullying and coercion are 'hysterical'
Hamilton Academical chairman Les Gray (left), is on the SPFL board and said claims of bullying and coercion are 'hysterical'

Towards the end of her open letter to clubs, supporters and media on Friday the SPFL's non-executive director Karyn McCluskey expressed a hope that having dealt with the controversy surrounding the league body's corporate governance everybody now focuses on what really matters..."otherwise many clubs may not survive this period".

McCluskey signed off her letter with a portent of doom. "Make no mistake, this is a critical time for all clubs, and we must concentrate on what is important to the future of our game." An image of a child trying to teach his grandmother how to suck eggs sprang to mind.

Unless McCluskey thinks we've all been living on the moon these past few months she should already know that football folk are acutely aware of the sporting crisis we're living through. Is there a single football fan out there who doesn't know how serious the coronavirus-induced financial catastrophe is to their club and to the future of the game in this country?

Covid-19 has taken away their football but it hasn't taken away their capacity to acknowledge a calamity when they see one. Leeann Dempster of Hibs equated the threat to a meteor about to hit the Scottish game. Dave Cormack of Aberdeen has spoken about a "financial Armageddon" while also throwing in a reference to the Titanic. The language from all clubs is stark and consistent. We're in serious trouble.

McCluskey says we must concentrate on survival - and she's right. The human mind is capable of thinking about more than one issue, though. Just because clubs are desperately trying to find a way to stay alive until the end of this disaster - some won't make it, that's pretty clear - it doesn't mean we can't ask questions about some of the things that have been going on in the SPFL of late. The two issues can and must co-exist.

'There are unanswered questions everywhere'

On 16 April the SPFL's non-executive director engaged Deloitte to carry out what she called a "comprehensive", "independent" and "forensic" investigation into the mysterious circumstances of Dundee's vote in the resolution to bring an end to the current season.

Three days later, Les Gray, of Hamilton and a member of the SPFL board, announced: "There is no wrongdoing here. We are absolutely certain of that." How could he be so certain of no wrongdoing? Had Deloitte finished their work in three days? Had Gray spoken to all clubs who've been saying privately that they were leaned on to vote the way the SPFL wanted them to vote?

There exists screenshots of a WhatsApp group for Championship clubs from the days leading up to, and the day of, the SPFL's resolution vote. Chief executives of various clubs contribute to the group. Some mention that they've been threatened by the yes side. Three of the people who feature on the group have confirmed that the messages are genuine.

This is no revelation. This stuff has been online for a few weeks now. Has Gray seen it? If not, why not? If he has, has he investigated it? Before he issued his declaration of no wrongdoing did he actually ask those who are alleging wrongdoing what is it they think they know?

There are unanswered questions everywhere you look. How did Dundee's pivotal vote go from a no vote to a cancelled vote to a yes vote? Who did they speak to during that process? What was said?

Also, why were cash-strapped clubs told that the only way to release much-needed funds from the SPFL was to vote yes? We know now that advances or loans could have been issued to relieve the pressure and allow for some thinking time around the resolution to end the leagues.

Why were Aberdeen told their vote didn't matter? Who else was told? Why were the results of an incomplete vote published by the SPFL?

There is little worthwhile information in the Deloitte research because the terms of reference didn't appear to allow for a thorough investigation. No club we have spoken to even knew the investigation was happening. For McCluskey to trumpet this as a satisfactory conclusion to the matter is the greatest exercise in wishful thinking we've seen for quite some time.

Rangers yet to produce evidence

Rangers have been on the case for a while now. They claim that clubs were bullied and coerced into voting with the SPFL. The credibility problem for Rangers is that they haven't produced any evidence. Even those other clubs who have supported their call for an independent inquiry into the SPFL's behaviour are not claiming bullying. That's too strong a description, they say. Proving bullying is not an easy thing.

The Ibrox club are pressing on. They've called for an emergency general meeting of all clubs and getting it looks like a formality. At that point, in order to get an independent inquiry, they will need the support of 75% of their fellow clubs. That's an extremely high, almost impossibly high, threshold.

There's an obvious point to make here. If the SPFL are "absolutely certain" that no wrongdoing took place throughout this process then what have they to fear from a properly independent inquiry that currently has the backing of Hearts and Aberdeen?

Presumably the SPFL board believe that Rangers are either bluffing or have less evidence than they claim they have. If so, why not, in the interests of transparency, encourage an independent review?

As they would see it, the only outcome of that would be total exoneration, total clarity and an end to the suspicion that presently exists. That would be a major win for the integrity of the process and a major defeat to those who are questioning that integrity.

There is something that needs to be addressed here. Rangers' influence has waned significantly over the years. Through a succession of bombastic leaders they're not a club that has many allies among the SPFL membership. Some of their own behaviour has been antagonistic to put it mildly. At times, it could be deemed reckless. They now need supporters to get an independent inquiry and they'll struggle to find enough of them.

A chief executive of another club calls them "the boy who cried wolf". In the fable, they boy was right in the end, but nobody was minded to listen to him by then. Rangers claim they have evidence to support their calls for an inquiry. We don't know that because they won't release it until that inquiry is achieved. There's only one way to know what they have or haven't got.

What we do know is that there are questions without answers.

There are other clubs who are seriously unhappy with the way the SPFL has acted, clubs who say they will recount their own stories to an independent inquiry. They won't raise their head above the parapet just now because they know what can happen in Scottish football when you do. You can soon find yourself without a head.

We all know that there is a colossal threat to the future of the game because of Covid-19. Against the heaviest backdrop of our lifetime a lot of extremely smart people are trying to come up with ways to survive. That's the main challenge, but it's not the only one. Saving football in the future and examining governance in the present are not mutually exclusive discussions.