From the board room to the court room - SPFL reconstruction debacle continues

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Ann Budge
Ann Budge and Hearts will take legal action after their relegation from the Premiership was confirmed

And so the battleground changes, from chairmen on Zoom to QCs in court, from indicative votes and extraordinary general meetings to the competition and markets authority and the SPFL articles of association.

What joy. Isn't this the type of crack that made you fall in love with football in the first place?

Skin and hair has flown between club leaders these past months but they can all step aside now and let the legal profession take it from here.

The recent history of the game is littered with examples of indignant clubs threatening court over one thing or another only to back away when they got a whiff of the cost, but this time seems different. In their bid to right the wrong of relegation from the Premiership - or expulsion - Hearts would appear ready to go the distance.

One of three things will happen now. Hearts will change their mind and accept their lot after the SPFL's proposal for an expanded top flight was rejected by clubs. Two, Hearts will lose a legal action and will have no choice but to retreat. Or, Hearts will win a legal action and a new kind of football hell will break loose.

Success in court could mean the end of Neil Doncaster as chief executive of the SPFL for surely no leader would survive such a defeat. What it would mean for Hearts - compensation, reinstatement - is really hard to say. The silks are running the show now.

What we had on Monday was 26 of the 42 clubs who couldn't bring themselves to back a plan that would have spared three of their own members no end of misery, a plan that every last one of them would have supported had they been the one cast into the dismal plight of enforced relegation.

Instead, they danced on the head of a pin for weeks, incapable of finding agreement on the number of clubs they wanted in each division or how many divisions or whether these divisions should be temporary or permanent. To paraphrase a line from Blackadder, in all of those discussions they made about as much progress as an asthmatic ant carrying some heavy shopping.

In Tuesday's endgame they didn't even get close to a consensus. All of them said they had sympathy for the three clubs but if they did they had a strange way of showing it. Few, if any, of them thought it was fair that the three should suffer such a blow, but only a small number acted on those beliefs. The rest just declared the problem unsolvable and pulled the ladder up.

What did the clubs think about reconstruction?
Only three Premiership clubs indicated they were in favour, with five backing it in the Championship. In both League One and Two, four clubs responded favourably.

Because Hearts are the biggest of the three clubs facing relegation, most of the attention has been on them. That suits the other clubs who have voted against reconstruction. They want the argument focusing on Hearts and not Partick Thistle or Stranraer because it's easier to kick Hearts than it is Thistle, it's more convenient to bang on about Ann Budge - a misogynistic tone to some of it - and to mock Hearts' financial wastefulness and their awful decision-making than it is to confront the steepling injustice that is Thistle's situation.

That's a lot harder to face up to if you're one of the clubs who has done them in. So nobody really wants to spend much time talking about Thistle because it's uncomfortable. Maybe there's a bit of guilt there. Better to divert and bombard Hearts instead. Safer ground, that.

But let's look at Thistle. They are now a club in limbo, possibly starting their season in League One in January, but possibly not. Nobody knows. Nobody is giving them any information because there is no information to give. In terms of the restart, Leagues One and Two remain in no-man's land.

Some are happy to be there. Others are not. And Thistle are one of the others. Because they've been relegated with nine games of a season left to play while sitting two points outside of the safety zone with a game in hand people, will be out of work.

Getting unceremoniously dumped from the Championship, which is scheduled to begin again in October, is bad enough but then to be told that the league they've been dumped into might not be starting for another six months at least is a kick too far.

Stranraer chairman Iain Dougan
Chairman Iain Dougan and Stranraer are facing up to life in League Two

If they haven't already, they'll be forced to shed jobs. That's a direct consequence of not having games and not having income. How can anybody with a fair mind acknowledge that a grave injustice has been done and then vote in a way that does absolutely nothing to address that injustice?

The argument you hear is that nothing could be done, that all clubs couldn't bend to satisfy the wishes of one or two or three others. The people who are running the game couldn't find a better solution than this? What does that tell you about the people running the game?

Many of these same people are lying low. Ross County's Roy MacGregor was one of the few who raised his head above the parapet over the weekend when saying that Hearts should "take their medicine"external-link and desist from legal action. He presumably meant that Thistle should also take their medicine. Let him and others justify those comments to Partick Thistle, a club whose future will be in jeopardy if, and probably when, it's confirmed that they can't play league football until next year.

No club deserves this kind of treatment. Having won just two out of 13 league games before football was suspended MacGregor's own club were in freefall. Even hopeless Hearts had more points than them in that period.

Had Ross Country continued that trajectory and dropped to 12th and were then robbed of a chance to rescue themselves because of the pandemic would MacGregor be practising what he's now preaching about taking his medicine or would he be highlighting a wrong and calling for support? It doesn't matter who the afflicted clubs are, no properly functioning governing body - one that purports to act in the interests of 42 clubs - would stand over this decision.

What's also heard in places is the bogus argument to end all bogus arguments, the one that has people saying that if their club was in the same boat as Hearts or Thistle or Stranraer then they wouldn't be making such a song and dance about it. Donald Findlay, chairman of Cowdenbeath, is one of the people who have put this one forward.

All power to their magnanimity, but it's somewhat less than convincing. Selfless acceptance of a clear and obvious and hugely damaging injustice is not a trait that you would have associated with football in this county - or any other country - so these views have come as a genuine revelation.

We're asked to believe that people who scream the house down over a bad refereeing call would sigh and take their medicine when the very stability of their club was put in jeopardy. They wouldn't be happy, you understand, but they wouldn't be behaving like Budge with her legal action and her QCs and her vow to fight this to the last. They'd have more class.

They should save that stuff for the tourists. Court now beckons and with it comes the disapproving shaking of heads among clubs who have given Hearts no other option but to fight. "It's a sad day when lawyers get involved," said an official at one of those clubs who voted against reconstruction. If only his self-awareness matched his self-interest.

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