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A Mysterious Vote, Self-Interests and the Future of Scottish Football

At a time of inactivity around the globe, Scottish football is bringing the drama in the form of a vote over whether to end its seasons now. The future rests in the hands of a second-tier, third-place side.

In football, as in so many other spheres, the current crisis has shone a light on our true selves. And Scottish football’s true self, it turns out to nobody’s great surprise, is farcically chaotic and riven with self-interest. So, despite UEFA's warning to leagues to not bring their seasons to a premature close, Scotland stands on the brink of ending its 2019-20 campaign. Everything has been hanging on the vote of one club, Dundee. 

Last Friday, it voted no–not to end the season now–only for the electronic ballot not to register. It then asked for its vote not to be considered, before making clear in a statement on Wednesday that it intended to vote no again–only for a statement from the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) later on Wednesday to confirm that it had actually voted yes, to end the season now.

Surely, cannot be an end of it. This farce will drag on, and it’s entirely possible it will eventually be decided in the courts.

In attempting to untangle the mess, it perhaps makes sense to go back to the beginning. There has been a movement in Scottish football to end the season so that clubs can receive their prize money. Without that, many sides face serious financial difficulty and possible bankruptcy (as an aside, why some prize money couldn’t be paid now and the rest after the season is completed hasn’t been adequately explained). So last Friday, the SPFL put it to a vote–but not without some social media hilarity. The SPFL, naturally, is an entirely different body than the SFPL–the Santa Fe Public Library–though that didn't keep the New Mexico institution from being roped in.  

It has since changed its Twitter bio to read: "Santa Fe Public Library (not San Francisco!)(And sadly, not the Scottish Professional Football League either)."

But back to the vote: A development of this nature would require a three-quarters majority in each of the SPFL’s three categories–Premiership, Championship and Leagues 1 and 2, the lowest two divisions counting as a single bloc. The Premiership voted 10–2 in favor of ending the season. Leagues 1 and 2 voted 16–3 in favor. And the Championship voted 7–2–that is, one short of the necessary majority–with Dundee having mysteriously withdrawn its vote.

The voting patterns were clear. Most clubs want the season done. They want their money. The only clubs who don’t are those with something still to play for. In the Championship, Partick Thistle, bottom of the table and facing relegation, voted no, as did Inverness Caledonian Thistle, which lies second and still hopes to catch the leaders Dundee United (despite being 14 points adrift) to secure automatic promotion. In the Premiership, Hearts, bottom of the table and facing relegation, and Rangers, second in the league, 13 points behind Celtic, but desperate to deny its bitter rival a ninth straight title (Rangers and Celtic have both won nine in a row before; nobody has ever done 10) voted no.

Dundee FC's stadium

So what of Dundee? Under Bob Shankly–Bill’s elder brother–it won the Scottish league in 1962 and reached the semifinals of the European Cup a year later. Since then, it has rather pottered along, usually in the top flight, although there was the bizarre period 20 years ago when Giovanni Di Stefano, a convicted fraudster and associate of the Serbian warlord Arkan, was a director and it signed the veteran forwards Claudio Caniggia and Fabrizio Ravanelli. It was relegated to the Championship last season and was third when the season was suspended, in a promotion playoff spot but 18 points behind the leader, Dundee United. 

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Dundee’s no vote was submitted electronically but, for reasons unknown, failed to arrive at SPFL headquarters. When the SPFL followed up, Dundee then requested its vote be ignored should it arrive. Although there was a deadline to vote of 5 p.m. on Friday, for abstruse bureaucratic reasons a final decision doesn’t have to be made for four weeks after that deadline.

A much-awaited statement released by the club on Tuesday merely said that it was in “discussions” with relevant parties. With Partick Thistle making ominous noises that its legal advice suggests Dundee’s initial vote should stand, a further statement was released on Wednesday, which not merely insisted the club had voted properly, but confirmed the no vote. It further expressed concern that two Premiership clubs with which it had been in contact had seemingly changed their votes between Thursday and Friday.

Although some suggested Dundee would vote no merely to thwart its local rival, the club insisted on Wednesday it was acting because it felt ending the season now was unfair on those clubs that would be relegated.

Dundee FC's stadium

"In our opinion the SPFL’s 'solution' for the league was not a solution for all teams in the league," Dundee's first Wednesday statement read. "Knowing that most teams desperately needed cash flow before the end of April, the quickest and easiest way for the SPFL to achieve that was this proposal; however, the result was immediate inequity, and mid-to long-term instability. Understandably, that was the driving factor for a ‘yes’ vote from many clubs. 

"Outside of clubs receiving an injection of immediate cash, this was unacceptable to us as we feel the actions of the league should be representative of all its members; detrimental impact to one club is ultimately detrimental to all clubs. Furthermore, the proposal left little prospect for league reconstruction, another significant aspect of long-term sustainability for Scottish Football. Whilst the lockdown has resulted in tremendous hardship for the country, one opportunity it has presented, in Dundee FC’s point of view, is the restructuring of the league."

Yet later on Wednesday, the SPFL announced the motion had passed, with Dundee voting yes. Quite what had changed is unclear, but discussions are ongoing about a possible restructuring of the Scottish league. For that reason, although the champions and promotion/relegation issues in the second tier and below are confirmed, the Premiership remains unresolved–at least until a UEFA deadline of April 23 passes.

Earlier in the saga, Rangers had called for the suspension of SPFL chief Neil Doncaster and its legal adviser, Rod McKenzie, while also calling for an independent inquiry. The club claims to have evidence from a whistleblower relating to Dundee’s initial missing vote but has refused to reveal it until an inquiry is held.

That suggests something rather more serious than simply bureaucratic bungling. A shambolic situation is threatening to degenerate into civil and legal war.