Henry McLeish asks why SFA is not taking the lead during unprecedented crisis

Former first minister says there is a lack of vision at top of game
Former first minister Henry McLeish’s Scottish Football review was published ten years ago and one of the proposals that was later acted upon was the creation of one league body. Picture: SNS.Former first minister Henry McLeish’s Scottish Football review was published ten years ago and one of the proposals that was later acted upon was the creation of one league body. Picture: SNS.
Former first minister Henry McLeish’s Scottish Football review was published ten years ago and one of the proposals that was later acted upon was the creation of one league body. Picture: SNS.

Henry McLeish believes the Scottish Football Association acceding authority to the Scottish Professional Football League has been one of the “great tragedies” of the review he conducted into the Scottish game.

The former first minister was the author of the Scottish Football review which was published ten years ago. One of the recommendations later acted upon was the creation of one league body. The Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football League merged in 2013 to form the SPFL.

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Now barely a day goes by when the SPFL is not accused of one thing or another following a controversial vote to curtail the season last month.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle are the latest to put their name to stinging criticism of the organisation. Ahead of tomorrow’s EGM, when clubs will vote to hold an independent investigation into recent events, the Championship club released a statement which described the recent SPFL ballot as a “disingenuous, incompetent shambles”.

Rangers, too, are in a running war with the SPFL – or at least three of its office bearers, chief executive Neil Doncaster, lawyer Rod McKenzie and chairman Murdoch MacLennan. On top of all this has been the complete collapse of league reconstruction talks within three weeks of them starting.

In one sense, McLeish is responsible for creating an SPFL that has been dogged by controversy almost since its inception.

He considers the question about whether he feels a sense of responsibility as “fair” but added: “I think at the time with two overlapping organisations dealing with league matters that was an important reform.”

But events have clearly not panned out as he envisaged. A few top clubs have wrestled control of the game, hence the collapse of league reconstruction talks on Friday.

“Every institution that is created depends on the people involved in it, the principles they operate, the values, all of that,” said McLeish. “It made sense to take two league set-ups and combine them but what has happened – and this was not part of my script or my deliberations – is that the SPFL has now taken over the SFA.”

Few involved in Scottish football care as deeply about the game as McLeish. He despairs at the lack of vision at the top of the game. When the SFA should be taking a lead at the time of an unprecedented crisis in the game, they have been found wanting.

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SFA president Rod Petrie, pictured left, and chief executive Ian Maxwell, pictured right, have been peripheral figures since the pandemic crisis began. If an alien was to land in Scotland and asked who is running – or at least trying to run – the game in Scotland, there could only be one answer: SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster. The SFA has been found wanting as the SPFL happily eats itself amid a raft of squabbling clubs.

“This remains one of the great tragedies of the review,” says McLeish. “What you have to have in Scottish football is the SFA as the dominant authority. They are the ones who make the rules. You do not necessarily need one organisation, but you do need a lead organisation. But what has happened is that the SPFL have taken over the SFA. They are all wrapped up in each other. What that means is the committees of the SFA are populated by people from the SPFL so therefore you have effectively one organisation, it is just not represented as one body.

“My great fear is the power of the clubs, the power of the SPFL, is chewing up the remnants of the SFA. Those in charge of the SFA must now be standing a bit taller and saying, for the future of Scottish football, we must have a bigger say. The SFA have been given authority throughout its history,” he added. “For reasons best known to themselves, they are surrendering that authority. The Scottish Premiership part of the SPFL has become far too dominant. My worry is that the priorities within the SFA, including youth development, are not being given the resources and consideration they should. I get the impression that what you have here is a silent takeover of the SFA and its committees and apparatus by the SPFL.”

When McLeish was commissioned to carry out his review, he was understandably concerned about the game’s future – as were others, which is why he was given the task. More than ten years on, and despite many of his recommendations having been acted upon, he considers the game to be in an even graver position. Scotland have still not qualified for an international tournament, for example. There remains a possibility of reaching the rescheduled Euro 2020 but, if not, McLeish fears qualification could be as far away as 

“I am even more worried [about the future] and I will tell you why,” he says. “When I did my review the game had reached its nadir, its lowest point. There was widespread acceptance that something had to be done. George Peat [the then SFA president] got me on board and I was thrilled to be doing all that.

“The report was well received and a lot of firm recommendations, most of them were accepted. It seems to me we were turning a corner and there was a vision ahead. I am not convinced now. I am not convinced there is a way ahead.”

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