Henry McLeish has published the second part of his review of Scottish football, this time dealing with the way the professional game is run. And he didn’t pull his punches, calling for radical change to bring the governance of the Scottish game up to an acceptable standard.
In May of last year, former First Minister Henry McLeish was appointed to carry out a thorough review of Scottish football. Part one of the report, covering the grassroots side of the game and youth development was published in April. It called for massive investment in facilities and new structures to bring young players through.
The second part of the report was scheduled for release in the autumn, so it is perhaps a little late. But for those of us who have long been critical of the cliques in blazers who have mismanaged the Scottish game for decades, it was well worth waiting for.
Many of the media headlines have featured McLeish’s backing for two divisions of 10 teams and the introduction of a winter break. But that really misses the key areas of his analysis, where he ably sets out the shambolic approach currently taken to the governance of our national game, calling it, “totally inappropriate for the modern era.”
McLeish states that the Scottish Football Association, “lacks coherence, focus and a sense of overall purpose, is ill-equipped to deal with current problems and has failed to plan effectively for the future”. There is no overall vision for football, no set of values or principles to operate by.
A damning indictment if ever there was one.
He also states that within the SFA, “there is little appreciation of the benefits of being more open and transparent”. This echoes the criticisms that many of us have made of the organisation, especially during the recent months that have seen a referee’s strike and the sacking of several SFA staff for circulating a sectarian e-mail.
Henry McLeish makes a coherent case for major change in Scottish football. And he is clear that the status quo is not an option; reform is a must.
So what are the specific recommendations for the future?
Firstly, the leagues should be reorganised. McLeish looks at six different models for the top division, ranging from a 10 team league with teams playing each other four times to a 24 team league with 22 games before a split and 14 after (not sure I understand that one!).
His favoured option is two top divisions of 10 teams, and this would get rid of the current split, which I have always disliked. There would be play offs for promotion and relegation between the league and parachute payments for those falling down the structure.
McLeish also mentions the possibility of ‘colt’ teams from SPL clubs playing in the lower leagues, while he would like to see a pyramid system put in place, covering the Highland League, South of Scotland League, East of Scotland League and the Juniors, for entry into the senior ranks.
McLeish suggests a July start to the season so that teams are prepared for early European matches, which makes sense. And a winter break for January is recommended too. I have mixed feelings here, given the unpredictability of the Scottish weather. If there are many postponements in December, as is currently happening, and then a January break, things could get very busy at the end of the season.
The report then recommends that the three governing bodies involved in Scottish football should be reduced to two by the merger of the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football league. While I support this move, I would go further and bring the SFA in too, thus creating a unitary body in overall charge of football.
McLeish’s analysis of the SFA will make grim reading for those who have been involved in its (mis)management for long periods. He describes an out-dated and bureaucratic organisation that is simply not fit for purpose. Lacking vision and operating in a secretive manner, it operates largely for the convenience of its committee members.
Many football fans will have said exactly the same thing many times, and often in more colourful language too. But McLeish has both the authority and impartiality to make these criticisms and to have them listened to by those in authority.
McLeish correctly recommends a total overhaul of the SFA’s corporate governance. There are far too many committees operating in secret and no one outside the organisation, and probably few within, actually understand how it all fits together.
He also calls for Independent Directors to be added, rather than simply drawing from those involved in clubs or at the various local and regional levels. This would bring in new skills and also allow fresh ideas to be brought to the table. And it would open up the organisation to outside scrutiny, aiding moves towards transparency.
The specific recommendations include a smaller governing Board, a more representative Council and the establishment of two new partnerships and one panel to replace the current nine Standing Committees.
These would be a Professional Football Partnership, a Community Football Partnership and a Regulation, Compliance and Disciplinary Panel which would carry out the enforcement functions of the SFA.
The proposed role for this last body is interesting to say the least. Mentioning the referees’ dispute, McLeish stresses the need for trust and confidence to be re‑established and emphasises that transparency must be a key factor in its operation.
It is suggested that this body would be semi-autonomous and headed by an officer with no ties to any club or footballing structure (something new there then). It would have two separate staff teams: one to investigate and one to convene and support the judicial elements of the work.
The disciplinary system is currently a secretive process which has lost the confidence of many clubs and fans. If openness and transparency are to be the foundations of a new system it will be a major step forward.
McLeish states that delegated responsibility for the day to day running of the SFA should rest with the executive team, headed by the Chief Executive. Now if something so basic has to be spelled out, the SFA really is in trouble. This would suggest to me that office bearers are routinely interfering in operational matters. The CEO has to be allowed to run the organisation, within the limits of agreed policy, of course.
The recommendations of Henry McLeish’s report are significant and far reaching. There is much in the 106 pages that will receive wide public support, and its vision for the future of a modern organisation operating under the principles of openness and accountability is an attractive one.
The question now becomes one of how there recommendations can be put into action.
McLeish proposes a small Planning and Implementation Group to oversee the restructuring of the SFA. The CEO would be the key advisor and would carry out much of the day to day work, supported by outside experts are required. This form of project management approach is wholly appropriate for the major task at hand.
Overall, I am encouraged by this report. It provides impressive analysis and robust arguments for change. Much of the criticism of the SFA isn’t new – but it now has a greater legitimacy because of its source.
There is a great deal of work required to make the necessary changes, and the process will be undoubtedly be uncomfortable for many of those involved.
But the ultimate goal is a professional game that has the type of governance necessary to thrive in the modern world. Clubs, football fans, politicians and the media must ensure that the pressure for change continues and that there are no roadblocks put up along the way by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Scottish football is currently in a state of disarray. Only radical action can now save it.