John Bleasdale on Neil Doncaster and the SPFL

This is my own personal view on leadership of the SPFL.

The final straw for Neil Doncaster, time to go

WHAT does Neil Doncaster have to do for SPFL clubs to vote for his removal as Chief Executive of the League?

Over eleven years since he took up the post, then with the SPL before they and the SFL merged in 2013, Doncaster has presided over some of the most challenging times in Scottish Football, and has not handled them well. From the “Armageddon” blackmail to lower league clubs over where the reformed Rangers began their journey, through two periods of no sponsorship, through his palming off of league reconstruction to Ann Budge, the charge sheet against him is endless.

This week alone has brought three more cases to back up fans claims that he should be removed from his position. Firstly, the fallout over the Celtic Dubai fiasco and the leagues role in approving the unnecessary trip. Rearranging a match against Hibs from the Saturday to the Monday behind the Easter Road clubs back was nothing short of disgraceful, and palming it off as “in line with previous procedure” was just baffling. Previous procedure did not include the middle of a global pandemic, even before a new strain of coronavirus accelerated cases this trip was ill advisable. It was not essential for Celtic to go to Dubai, they were not travelling to play in a competition, and the league should have been reminding them of the fact they have THREE games in hand to rearrange. The fact that Hibs weren’t consulted was the most sickening part, and to rub salt in the wound it was the Hibees who were threatened with a 3-0 defeat for daring to suggest that Celtic players got tested before their game on Monday. It was justice that they snatched a late equaliser in injury time.

The second controversy that he has been involved in was the decision taken by the SFA to impose a three week suspension on the whole of Scottish Football – outwith the top two leagues. Whilst the decision itself was not made by the SPFL, the clubs affected tried to raise their concerns in a Zoom meeting, but Doncaster muted their microphones and refused to allow requests from chairmen/chairwomen to voice their opinions. Of course, Doncaster refutes this and claims that emails were invited before the meeting. With all due respect, but the purpose of a meeting is to have an adult discussion to raise concerns over the way a business or organisation is being run, and not allowing people to speak up is grossly unfair.

Lastly, the SPFL have had the embarrassment of seeing St Mirren and Kilmarnock win their appeals against forfeited matches, which saw them handed 3-0 defeats in three games respectively, two to Motherwell and one to Hamilton. When you consider that Aston Villa v Newcastle and Tottenham v Fulham in England’s top flight were quickly rearranged, the SPFL punishment was ridiculous to say the least. St Mirren and Kilmarnock admitted breaches relating to team buses, car sharing and sitting together at meals, teams being given 3-0 wins on a plate was not the way to go about it. The whole Celtic debacle played right into their hands, plus what was going on in England, and the right decision was made by the SFA. Instead of rearranging games at the time, it took Doncaster and his board six weeks to make the awful decision that’s now come back to bite him, and now clubs will be trying to rearrange games at a time where it’s uncertain that the top flight will be able to carry on for much longer if the number of positive cases continues to rise.

Now it can be argued that Doncaster is merely following rules put in by the clubs, and that club power restricts what he can do. However, he is paid a near £400k annual salary to make recommendations to the clubs and put them into place, and he isn’t doing nearly enough to justify that salary. The fact the league is without a sponsor for the second time in his tenure is criminal, it is his job to sell the league to companies to convince them that it’s worth investing in Scottish Football, which has a lot going for it on the park. You can only argue the impact of Covid-19 to a point because he’d known for sometime that the Ladbrokes sponsorship was coming to an end, and a new sponsor should’ve been in place before the impact of the pandemic hit our country.

His handling of the end of season and reconstruction debate was scandalous. Knowing the impact on clubs, he should’ve put forward a proposal of 14-10-10-10 at the same time as plans to call the season. Instead, once he got his way on the latter, he palmed off the league reconstruction task force in the hands of Ann Budge, which was never going to go down well considering she had the most at stake. His leadership was spineless, and he’s now in further danger of contradiction by publicly declaring that he can’t rule out a null and void scenario this season.

Of course, it would be unfair to pass all of the blame on Neil Doncaster’s door. The way most clubs behaved during the end of season discussions was childish and the self interest came through in droves at a time where the welfare of Scottish Football should’ve been paramount. It proves that the current system is not fit for purpose and that our game will not move on whilst clubs have their say. The SPFL and SFA boards need wholly independent people not directly involved with individual clubs to make the big decisions, they will more likely have the whole of Scottish Football at the heart of their discussions, whereas club representatives continue to put their interests first, as they showed during the end of season and reconstruction discussions.

However, those sticky points don’t dissolve Neil Doncaster of blame throughout his eleven year tenure. As Chief Executive, he is supposed to be the main marketing drive for our game and showcase Scottish Football to willing advertisers and broadcasters. Instead, he constantly downplays our game with the Armageddon scenarios he paints and his inability to deal with the key issues in our game. The rubber stamping of Celtic’s trip against Hibs wishes, contempt for League One and Two clubs over the suspension of their season, and diabolical handling of the St Mirren and Kilmarnock disciplinary procedures should be the final nail in his coffin.

Scottish Football is in need of major reform, and getting rid of Neil Doncaster is a good place to start.

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