Recent times have seen controversy return to Scottish football, following uproar over the scheduling of the Betfred League Cup semi-finals: Aberdeen against Rangers and Hearts facing Aberdeen. After initially arranging both semi-finals, to be played at Hampden on Sunday 28th October, the SPFL then announced nearly a week later that they would be switching the Hearts v Celtic fixture to the BT Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh.
There was immediate outcry following the first announcement, with fears about fan safety at the prospect of 100,000 supporters from 4 different teams descending on Glasgow. The SPFL had originally planned to stage one of the semi-finals on Saturday 27th October, but with both Celtic and Rangers competing in the Europa League, this would have clashed with their respective fixtures on the Thursday, teams are required to be given 48 hours rest between matches.
SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, responsible for organising the competition, came under widespread criticism. Hearts manager Craig Levein, who labelled the move ‘madness’, while club owner Ann Budge expressed her astonishment in a statement on the club’s website. Aberdeen also declared that they were ‘appalled’, with the first train from Aberdeen arriving in Glasgow nearly fifteen minutes after the start of their proposed semi-final.
Doncaster defended the decision, pointing out they were contractually obligated to play both games at Hampden and given the fixture congestion this was the ‘only feasible solution’. He did however acknowledge ‘it would be better’ if the games were held at different stadia. A request was made to the SFA, who preside over the Hampden contract, to permit one of the games to be played at another venue. They were told initially both games would have to played at the national stadium. Then the SFA changed stance and following discussions, confirmed Celtic-Hearts would take place at Murrayfield.
Whilst this episode in the Scottish football melodrama appears to have drawn to a close, it once again raises wider questions about the organisation behind Scottish football. It was not mentioned exactly what caused the SFA to reconsider their position, but it can only be assumed that it was common sense. The glaring issues with the original plan were there for all to see. Ann Budge called it ‘a disaster waiting to happen’, a sentiment echoed by fans and pundits alike. It should be highlighted that Doncaster also sits on the board of the SFA, the key decision-making body in this case.
Returning to the original plan, it was confirmed that Police Scotland were happy for both games to take place at Hampden as designated. Had it gone ahead, it would have been the first time the Old Firm had played fixtures in Glasgow on the same day since 1983, a chaotic and violent period in Scottish football history. Whilst Police Scotland agreed it would be able to deal with the situation, the General Secretary of the Police Federation, called it ‘completely idiotic’. This worrying lack of concern for fans seems to be a running theme, given the travel complications. The SPFL discussed the matter with Scotrail before making their decision, yet continued in spite of these problems. It is understandable the SPFL would be unwilling to risk legal action, but on the other hand, surely fan safety should be the priority?
It could be argued that this was to be expected, just one more instance in a continuous catalogue of blunders, be it the SFA or SPFL. Earlier this year, newly appointed Chief Executive of the SFA Ian Maxwell came under fire for claiming that the SFA had not failed Scottish children and that he believed Scottish youth football was a safe place. These statements came in response to a recent enquiry into child abuse, commissioned by the SFA itself, which suggested that were still gaps in the system and a lack of funding was leaving children at risk.
Continuing back through the blunders chronologically, Gordon Strachan parted ways with the national men’s side in November last year, leaving them rudderless for several months before naming Alex McLeish manager. Although the national side had no fixtures at the time, it was the manner of their pursuit for a successor which raised concern and criticism. This took considerable time to decide on a candidate, before missing out on first choice Michael O’Neill and then settling for someone, who according to many reports, was several names down the list. McLeish, despite leading Scotland to promotion from Group C to B in the inaugural Nations League is in many fan’s eyes is almost too literal metaphor for the regression of the game in Scotland.
Preceding that, there was the saga of current Performance Director Malky Mackay. Following a damaging leak, in which Mackay used racial and homophobic slurs, there was a severe backlash over his appointment. Anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out has since come out in support of Mackay, but it is hardly a sign that the SFA is committed to tackling persistent problems with homophobia and racism. Given context, this too looks more like a haphazard and unimaginative appointment, rather than an open-minded outlook on second chances.
With the Scottish men’s team having failed to qualify for a major tournament since France ’98, there was been much made of the direction of Scottish football, an argument aided by dwindling success in European club competitions. Football fans are in an almost permanent state of hoping; hoping that their side can claim the title, win the derby or merely pull off the impossible and avoid relegation. Yet there seems little hope for Scottish football given the incompetence plaguing its leadership. Many of the media reports which followed violent clashes at the 2016 Scottish Cup final declared it was all too similar to a forgotten past, familiar scenes from the eighties and the nineties in Scotland. On current evidence, it looks a lot more like regression than progression.