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How the sorry saga of the SPFL vote descended from incompetence to scandal

Maxie Swain assesses Good Friday's calamitous vote on the Scottish football season which has set Rangers and the SPFL on a damaging collision course

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Steven Gerrard

Steven Gerrard

Getty Images

John Nelms

John Nelms

David Young

Eric Drysdale

Eric Drysdale

SPFL chief Neil Doncaster

SPFL chief Neil Doncaster

PA

Steven Gerrard

Matt Hancock had not long delivered another sobering assessment of daily life in these benighted times.

It was mid-afternoon on a sun-drenched Good Friday, the hottest day of the year providing a jarring backdrop to another bleak and chastening press briefing from the health secretary.

It was the deadliest day yet, a record 980 souls lost to the pandemic, and while news on Boris Johnson's condition was more positive, the mantra was the same - stay in, save lives, there's no end in sight.

More than one week on, however, and as shameful as it sounds, it's already old news now, overtaken by events as each day melds into the next; the same, steady funereal roll-call of death and devastation.

Around the time Hancock was addressing the nation, some 400 miles to the north, emails were zipping through the ether and popping into Michele Shields' and Iain Blair's inboxes on the sixth floor of the SPFL's Hampden headquarters.

The issue at stake was the fate of the football season north of Hadrian's Wall, and while lives may not have been at stake, livelihoods and the very survival of member clubs certainly were.

With the coronavirus crisis dominating news agendas, the machinations haven't commanded the column inches it otherwise might have.

It was such a straightforward vote after all; each club required to submit a simple yes or no to the SPFL's resolution that the season should be 'called' - in other words, that the Championship as well as League One and Two should end now, and titles, promotions and relegations decided on present league positions.

A decision on how to resolve the all-important Premiership would then follow.

Yet somehow, what appeared to be a simple enough undertaking has descended into a modern-day football farce with more than just a whiff of scandal about it.

It's an unseemly, unsightly quagmire of claim and counter-claim; of rows over faltering faxes and internet firewalls; accusations of coercion, bullying and abuses of due process, and no shortage of coruscating commentary from within and without Scotland on how such a routine vote has led us to here.

And as ever in Scottish football, a rancorous tribal undercurrent is electrifying the whole process with Rangers in one corner and Celtic the other.

The Hoops are now poised to complete the hugely symbolic 'nine-in-a-row' after the resolution was eventually passed, five days late, in controversial circumstances on Wednesday.

But of course this has gone well beyond the traditional blue versus green battleground of Glasgow.

For the vast majority of Scotland's cash-starved clubs, how to fast-track their slice of the £9.3m prize pot in these desperately straitened times is the burning issue; squabbles over Old Firm supremacy the least of their worries.

The SPFL were adamant their resolution was the only show in town and the only way to do this but Rangers disagreed, submitting an alternative resolution which would see loans advanced to clubs based on current league standings, pending the final distribution of monies once the season is played to a finish.

But wait a second, let's rewind a bit, back to those blue skies of Good Friday as the clock ticked down towards the 5pm deadline.

Just two days before, on Wednesday, April 8, in an hour-long video conference call, all 42 clubs throughout the league were informed they had 48 hours to return their ballots, via fax or by scanned email.

In reality, they had 28 days to mull their decisions, with Good Friday's deadline merely a request.

As the cut-off point approached, the SPFL announced that all clubs had complied bar three. The Premiership, League One and Two had already met the 75% quota to pass the resolution, but the Championship remained in limbo, with Dundee FC identified as the club with the casting vote.

Then finally at 4.52pm, eight minutes to deadline, Eric Drysdale allayed fears of an incomplete ballot.

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Eric Drysdale

Eric Drysdale

Eric Drysdale

 

In actual fact, messages in a private club WhatsApp group confirmed they had sent their vote half an hour earlier at 4.24pm.

"Alea iacta est, as they said in Ancient Rome. DFC vote submitted," the Dundee FC secretary and SNP councillor posted, Latin for 'the die has been cast'.

A photo of their vote would later emerge online showing that the Dens Park club had voted to reject the resolution.

In that case, the SPFL had failed and it was back to the drawing board... or so we thought.

Then this happens:

  • 5.51pm: Less than an hour later, in a bizarre move which may yet have fatally undermined the whole process, the SPFL release the results, and it quickly becomes clear that there is still one vote missing;
  • 6.07pm: Dundee, somehow realising theirs is the missing vote, despite the SPFL not revealing the breakdown of clubs, send an email requesting the SPFL disregard any incoming vote that is subsequently discovered.

It has since been established that Dundee's vote did land in SPFL servers before the deadline, as Drysdale said, but had been redirected into Blair and Shields' junk folders.

What then follows is where the whole sorry saga nosedives from incompetence into scandal territory.

Rather than simply resend their email, or fax it through, it soon becomes clear Dundee are now equivocating and no longer prepared to stand by their vote, with John Nelms, the club's managing director and the signatory of their ballot, now the villain of the piece - for Rangers fans anyway.

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John Nelms

John Nelms

David Young

John Nelms

 

In the ensuing horse-trading, a flurry of messages and emails are leaked showing Nelms lobbying for money, indicating that he now supports the resolution, as would eventually come to pass on Wednesday - five days later - begging the question why the "Damascene conversion," as one online cynic wryly put it.

Thrust into the role of kingmaker and noting his newfound leverage, messages show Nelms was in contact with "big hitters" once it was known his vote had somehow gone astray.

Amid talk of lucrative "friendlies" and alleged contact with some major SPFL powerbrokers, it seems he changed his mind.

Cue all-out civil war.

Stranraer, now relegated as a result of the resolution, said they were "incensed" by the SPFL's decision to reveal details of the vote before it had been concluded, adding they believed it could have prejudiced the entire process.

Both Partick and Aberdeen issued statements decrying the lack of information and time they were given in the lead-up to such a seismic football decision, while Raith Rovers raised suspicions over why an ostensibly democratic ballot was couched in such leading terms, with the SPFL document "(making) clear that declaring the seasons ended was the only way to achieve distribution of funds".

For most clubs, this would have been the only thing to consider, yet it has since been discredited. There were other ways to get their hands on the money without calling the season.

Inverness CEO Scot Gardiner said it was "fundamentally wrong to conflate the two", Stranraer described it as "disingenuous", while Rangers, Hearts, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Partick - all admittedly clubs with something to lose - have rowed in behind.

Rangers have demanded a full, independent investigation into the whole debacle, while also calling for the suspension of SPFL chief Neil Doncaster and his legal adviser Rod McKenzie.

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SPFL chief Neil Doncaster

SPFL chief Neil Doncaster

PA

SPFL chief Neil Doncaster

 

A few days ago, speaking on Sky Sports, Gers chief Steven Gerrard branded the situation a "mess".

Partick are up in arms too. As things stand, they are now relegated from the Championship despite lying just two points off Queen of the South with a game in hand.

Predictably, Twitter has been ablaze with invective as angry supporters questioned the integrity of the process.

Of course there's nothing illegal with Drysdale, the man in charge of administering Dundee's vote, having been on the SFA judicial panel which sent Rangers down into the Third Division.

Does it really matter that Rangers' rival resolution is being blocked by McKenzie, the SPFL's solicitor who also works for Harper McLeod, the company who provide Celtic with legal advice?

And what about the curious case of Brechin City, cut adrift at the foot of League Two but saved from relegation in the restructuring? Their chairman Ken Ferguson sits on the SPFL board.

None of this amounts to corruption or skulduggery, of course, but it is certainly catnip for the conspiracy theorists.

And taken alongside everything else, the gaffes, the back channel politicking, the abuses of protocol which would make even Fifa blush, whether you sympathise or not, the siege mentality at Rangers is at least understandable.

Unlike Covid-19, football is not a matter of life and death.

But in the current climate, and with so many clubs with more to lose even than Rangers, was it really too much to ask to have a transparent vote?

The clamour for an independent investigation to clear the stench of alleged underhandedness grows daily. The reputation of the Scottish game may well depend upon it.

Timeline

Good Friday, April 10

4:24 A message on a WhatsApp group confirms Dundee FC have voted.

4:52 Dundee secretary Eric Drysdale writes that 'The die has been cast'

5:51 The SPFL releases the results of an incomplete ballot. The Championship is still short of 75%

6:07 Dundee FC contact the SPFL requesting that their vote rejecting the resolution is discounted, should it subsequently be discovered

Wednesday, April 15

6:09 The SPFL confirms that the ballot is now complete. Dundee voted in favour of the resolution which is now passed with the bottom three divisions 'called'

Belfast Telegraph