Factions And Fractions: The Calling Of Season 2019-20 And The Eviction Of Partick Thistle FC

by Jack Little
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THE FUTURE’S NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

The Covid-19 Pandemic caused the suspension of all sport in the UK and on 13th March 2020 (Friday the 13th!) all SPFL fixtures were suspended. The level of back-biting, sniping, ill-feeling, bitterness and bad blood towards the SPFL Board and between clubs in the months that followed reached unprecedented levels - even by the standards of Scottish football!

The SPFL Board invited the 42 SPFL clubs to vote on a resolution to end (“call”) the season for Championship and League 1 and 2 clubs as they stood on the day fixtures were suspended. The future of the Premiership was left in abeyance. There would be no play-offs and the “Pyramid System” would not operate.

On 10th April (Good Friday!) the SPFL posted the table reproduced below showing the results of the 39 votes received, ie, with 3 still to come. Despite the overwhelming mathematical majority in favour, the voting structure required individual league majorities and the Championship vote proved to be crucial. A vote against from the one remaining club (Dundee) and the proposal would be rejected.

YES NO MIN SUPPORT REQ'D
PREMIERSHIP 10 1 9
CHAMPIONSHIP 7 2 8
LEAGUES 1 & 2 16 3 15

Dundee’s "no" vote was alleged not to have been received and after conversations between the SPFL CEO and the Dundee Chairman, they were allowed to vote again (several days after the deadline) - this time changing their vote to ”yes”. The minimum threshold (8 votes) was achieved and the resolution was passed. What (if anything) happened during the intervening period between the 2 votes was not disclosed - but there was lots of speculation!

On 15th April the SPFL duly announced that the proposal had been carried by 81% of member clubs. As a result, leagues below the Premiership were “called” and Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers were declared champions of their respective divisions. The SPFL Chairman in his haste to issue a press release offering his “warmest congratulations” to the three clubs forgot to commiserate with relegated Thistle and Stranraer.

THANK YOU, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ON

The SPFL Board’s handling of the vote was widely ridiculed. As outlined above, the result of the ballot was announced before the last votes were cast (two of them academic but Dundee’s absolutely crucial). Effectively clubs had been given 3 days to consider the proposal and vote yet it came to light that legally they could have taken 28 days. The SPFL response was that they had only been “asked” to reply in 3 days but there were complaints that in the absence of making this clear, the Board had let clubs assume it was a requirement.

There were accusations of voting irregularities, bullying, coercion and the deliberate withholding of information. Complaints were voiced that it had been implied that only a “yes” vote would ensure that the final instalments of in-season payments to clubs could be made.

Emboldened by a previously unannounced internal investigation that gave them a clean bill of health, the SPFL’s response was “nothing to see here, move on” but the investigation was dismissed by many as a whitewash.

READ ’EM AND WEEP

The consequences for Thistle were drastic as they were bottom of the league at the time, 2 points behind nearest challenger Queen of the South but with a game in hand over them. In the Championship 25% of the season’s fixtures remained to be played. The resolution adopted points per game as the deciding calculator and this left Thistle stranded with 0.964 points per game against QOS’s 1 point per game. Thistle were “relegated” by 0.036 of a point with a game in hand. This must surely be some sort of record! (Not quite so, however. In England’s National League Ebbsfleet FC were “relegated” on the basis of 0.002 of a point using the same calculation.)

Extra sympathy points can be gained by recalling that unlike QOS, Thistle had already played runaway league champions Dundee United 4 times (emerging with just 1 point from 12) and that their game in hand was against Inverness ICT, a team they had already beaten home and away.

AN OASIS OF HOPE?

The only prospect of escape lay with possible legal action or the vague promise (by the SPFL) that league reconstruction might be considered. On 16th April Thistle announced that despite the strength of the legal opinion they had obtained, they would not be taking legal action as to do so would have put in jeopardy the final instalment of end of season funds to clubs in serious financial constraints. Their statement is reproduced below.

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To be relegated at any time in a club’s life is, in a sporting context, an enormous setback. You accept your fate, because it was in your hands to change the outcome. However, to be relegated in the arbitrary and unjust way we are currently experiencing, with no say in it, is heartbreaking for everyone at Partick Thistle, including staff and players and especially our fans.

We advised the SPFL on Tuesday of the joint counsel’s Opinion we had sought in relation to the validity – or not – of the Dundee FC vote cast last Friday. To be clear, we did not threaten litigation, we sought clarity on the legal points raised. We still regard this as a strong legal Opinion that raises significant issues around the whole process of the vote and related matters. Having taken further legal advice, we have been advised that we have the option to take this before a court. Instinctively, injustice demands reparation.

However, as a Club, the decision to relegate Thistle is first and foremost about our people and what this might mean for them. To pursue court action costs money and considerable time – so we have had to consider carefully whether both could be better spent on securing the Club’s future and protecting the livelihoods of those we employ. In deciding what our next steps should be, that was our first priority.

Thistle has always lived in the real world so we also looked at the bigger picture of the life-changing pandemic we find ourselves in. The resulting lockdown is challenging the very existence of some clubs. If we were to take this action to court, there is a risk that might stop the release of much-needed monies to those clubs on Friday.

That’s a step too far for us. Regardless of what’s been inflicted on Thistle, we can’t be responsible for pushing even one club to the brink. It would be hypocritical of us to have espoused “do no harm” as a reason why we shouldn’t be relegated and then do exactly that.

Taking all of that into account, although we stand by the legal Opinion, the Board has agreed that we will not seek “further remedy” against the SPFL in order to overturn the Resolution. Although we remain at a loss to understand why a decision was taken – at a time when Governments are seeking to support jobs across sectors – that will cause significant damage to Thistle and others.

Instead, we will focus our efforts and monies on Thistle and look forward, not back. That includes making a positive contribution to the discussions on possible changes to the league structures. We aren’t looking for sympathy, we don’t need it. We are a well-run, debt-free club with a proud history of rolling with the punches. We may be down but we are not out. When football returns, we will be here, ready to play, regardless of the league we are in.

To our fans, we hope you understand why we have reached this decision. No one should regard this as a sign of weakness – it shows our strength and resolution to get through this despite relegation being forced on us. We aren’t doing what’s easy but we are doing what is right for our Club, our people and for clubs across Scotland. We are grateful for your solid support and encouragement – and when next we meet at Firhill, it will be to start the fight back to right this wrong.

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER… BUT IT ISN’T YET

Rangers produced a “dossier of evidence” on 7th May in support of their demand for an external, independent enquiry into the governance of the SPFL and the suspension of 2 senior SPFL officials but once again the response was dismissive of the allegations despite an increasing number of clubs breaking cover with criticism of the SPFL Board (and each other!). Against a 75% majority requirement only 13 clubs (31%) voted in favour of an external enquiry. Peace had not broken out.

REORGANISATION, RELEGATION AND RADAR

A 15-strong (!) working party of club representatives was convened to produce proposals for league reconstruction but on 8th May it was announced that the Premiership clubs had decided they did not support any reconstruction. This decision was taken before the working party had produced its final discussion paper and without Premiership support it was considered pointless taking the issue further. The proposal was believed to have been 3 leagues (14-14-14) for two years.

Relegation for Thistle and Stranraer was reconfirmed and once again made public before Thistle had been informed. The oasis of salvation became a mirage and Thistle were relegated, expelled, demoted, cast adrift, sacrificed, ejected. (Readers should choose the most appropriate term as they think fit.) The Premiership had not yet been "called" but Hearts would find themselves in exactly the same position as Thistle and Stranraer unless reorganisation was supported. Most neutral opinion was that Thistle were by far the most unfairly treated.

Slipping under the radar were Brechin City. Bottom of Division 2, they should have met the winners of Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts to decide if they remained in the SPFL or swopped places with either of these Highland and Lowland League clubs. The SPFL announced – without a trace of irony - they could not put Brechin forward to the pyramid playoffs (organised by the SFA) because their rules did not permit them to do so if the full season fixtures had not been completed.

It had previously been agreed that, if applicable, Brechin City would join the Lowland League rather than the Highland League. This was at the club’s request despite their being located in the latter’s catchment area. It was hinted by at least one club official that it had been “suggested” that the continuing participation of Highland and Lowland League clubs in the Challenge Cup might have to be “reviewed” should the decision not go Brechin City’s way. The Brechin City chairman is a member of the SPFL Board.

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER… NO, NOT QUITE YET

The SPFL board met on 18th May and agreed to “call” the Premiership season. Celtic were declared champions; Hearts were confirmed relegated. Surprisingly, they also agreed that league reconstruction could be re-addressed. Hearts’ owner Ann Budge duly produced a paper that was discussed by the SPFL Board on 27th May. Agreement was reached that the paper should be put to all 42 clubs to gauge reaction.

The media view was that there was little chance of the proposals being accepted. Much of the critical comment was that Hearts’ self-interest was the motivation in trying to avoid relegation under the guise that no club should be worse off because the season had been curtailed. The majority required by Premiership clubs was 11/12.

[For the avoidance of doubt, the 11/12 voting structure effectively means that if just 2 Premiership clubs vote in a particular way and the remaining 40 vote the opposite way, just 5% of member clubs overrule the wishes of the remaining 95%. An extreme interpretation of democracy!]

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER… NO HOLD ON

Attention drifted towards starting season 2020/21 with 1st August pencilled in for the start of the Premiership. The enormous costs predicted for strict virus testing protocols and no early prospects of spectators being allowed were major issues. There was no mention of lower leagues. Several lower league clubs had suggested that they could not survive without spectators and hospitality and some said they would have to seriously consider going into hibernation.

NEW MONEY ON THE TABLE

Agreement was reached with broadcast partner Sky on 3rd June to allow live streaming of all Premiership matches and signalled the sale of “virtual season tickets”. Holders would be able to view their clubs’ home matches free of charge on-line. In July this was extended to any supporters/any match on a pay-per-view basis, as long as the match was not being broadcast live by Sky.

The SPFL announced it had met with wealthy financier James Anderson who was prepared to make a donation of £3.1m to SPFL clubs. Any club could apply through the SPFL Trust for a fixed grant of up to £50,000 from the bulk of the donation (£2.1m). All 42 clubs successfully applied. Intended to mitigate the impact of the virus, a number of clubs said they proposed to buy Covid-19 testing equipment.

YET ANOTHER PAPER FOR DISCUSSION

A new wave of optimism began to emerge – probably not unconnected to the donation from James Anderson and the Sky deal - then Rangers announced a new proposal for three leagues (14-14-18). The bottom division would include Rangers and Celtic “B” teams as well as Kelty Hearts and Brora Rangers. Both “Old Firm” clubs would pay their way into the league (ie, not start at the bottom end of the pyramid system) with a guarantee of financial support to League 2 clubs. Thistle would not benefit financially from this “Old Firm” largesse but at least they would remain in what would continue to be the 2nd tier.

Reaction ranged from a tremendous opportunity for Scottish football not to be missed, to a cynical attempt by the “Old Firm” to buy SPFL places for their colt teams - perhaps masking an ulterior motive to retain a footballing foothold in Scotland should they ever be invited to join an English or an Atlantic league. Financial inducement and league reorganisation had merely been thrown in to win clubs over.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

The results of the consultation exercises on the proposals from Hearts (14-14-14) and Rangers (14-14-18) were announced. Neither proposal received enough support to be taken forward but a new (compromise?) offer of 14-10-10-10 on a permanent basis was offered to clubs for consideration and an indicative vote was requested. Sufficient support would mean the proposal would be taken forward to a binding vote at an EGM. Since the funding model would need to be altered the Premiership threshold would again be 11/12. If voted through Thistle would remain in the Championship.

Short of successful legal action this proposal was seen as Thistle’s last chance to avoid the drop into a league where there was precious little evidence any of the clubs were planning for the new season or whether there would be enough of them to constitute a league at all other than on paper. Ultimately, inevitably, the contest facing the 42 club chairmen would be the familiar “Fairness v Self-Interest”. The winner would decide Thistle’s fate.

The club had made no public statements for some weeks but on 13th June they issued an open statement. It is reproduced below. Generally well received by the press, only time would tell if it would influence the vote.

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We have kept our counsel during current discussions and debate about reconstruction. It may prove to be the ultimate exercise in futility but this may be our last opportunity to speak out. If there is no change to the current set up, Partick Thistle will be the Scottish club hardest hit in professional football as the new season starts.

Despite being relegated in an arbitrary fashion – with a game in hand and only two points behind our nearest rivals – we stand ready, willing and able to play, including behind closed doors. But today, we still don’t know when or even if we will play football next season. Does anyone in Scottish football believe we deserve to be punished with a double whammy like this? Which club would find it acceptable if they were in our shoes? Not one of them.

Clubs need to think carefully about what their indicative vote to the SPFL will be on Monday and what will inform that decision. Everyone needs to reflect on their motives and thoughts behind their next step. Let’s be blunt in our plea to fellow clubs so that there’s no misunderstanding. Use this opportunity to do something positive for our game – right the wrongs done to us and a number of other clubs.

We all want to protect our own club; Thistle is no different. But there’s a difference between that and self-interest, which seeks to protect a perceived advantage created by an unforeseen crisis. Don’t use your vote to settle old scores. Don’t reinforce rivalries between clubs just to keep fans happy. Don’t turn a blind eye because it doesn’t impact on you – this time.

Recognise there will be far-reaching consequences of your actions for Thistle and everyone associated with the club. If that doesn’t matter to you, then focus on doing the right thing for Scottish football. If this vote collapses because people cannot set aside self-interest and ego, our game potentially faces irreparable damage and ongoing division for many years to come.

At a time unparalleled in footballing history, countries throughout Europe have re-jigged their league set ups to protect the whole – we have the opportunity to do the same. For Thistle, if proposed reconstruction fails, the consequences of the actions visited on us by fellow clubs will be long term and serious. We will prevail because “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but not before we suffer more pain and financial harm than is necessary or fair.

We believe it is time for clubs to show solidarity with us as we arbitrarily and disproportionately bear the brunt of the damage being done to our game due to circumstances that are no-one’s fault. Our plea is simple: choose to do no harm.

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER… IT IS NOW… WELL, MAYBE NOT

Clearly Thistle’s pleas had little effect. The result of this indicative consultation exercise was announced on 15th June. Only 16 clubs voted for the proposal. Thistle’s fate was effectively sealed. “Self interest” had won the day – as expected by most commentators – as it always has done in all Scottish league matters.

Reports suggested that the SPFL had intended to hold a binding vote if the indicative vote had been “lost” by a sizeable minority. This tactic was possibly with half an eye on potential legal proceedings so that they could show they had done everything to resolve the issue. In any event there was insufficient support even for that.

Ninety-four days after the season had been suspended the whole unsavoury, unedifying business seemed to have reached a conclusion. Scottish league football’s governing body emerged unscathed once again. Long-standing criticism of it, its governance and its voting structure was shelved for the time being. Thistle were condemned to the nether reaches of the SPFL where nothing was being discussed or planned. Number of clubs unknown. Number of fixtures unknown. Start date unknown.

M’LEARNED FRIENDS ON THE BENCH

Within a few hours of the decision, Hearts announced they were initiating legal action - as they had given notice they might do some weeks earlier. Thistle issued a statement saying they would almost certainly not be taking legal action due to the prohibitive costs in doing so. Their statement is reproduced below.

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Partick Thistle is neither shocked nor surprised by today’s announcement. It has been clear for some time that we were to be sacrificed for the alleged greater good of the Scottish game, but it is still sickening now that it has been confirmed.

In recent weeks, we have gone over the limited options open to us in this situation. Court action is our preferred route. However, the reality is that the cost to do so is prohibitive for us and it comes with no guarantee of success. To raise an action would cost the club a six-figure sum, indeed it would mean effectively using the incredible six-figure sum raised by our fans to support the club through this difficult period. That is the equivalent of monies to bring three or four new players to the club to get us back on track next season. That has to be our priority and what we believe a majority of our fans want too – building the strongest possible squad to win matches when football returns. Therefore, the Board will not pursue legal action at this time but reserves the right to do so should circumstances change.

We know that some may disagree with that decision. But, with no guarantees, we can’t risk monies in this way if we are serious about getting back to the Championship at the first opportunity. We are entitled to feel rage about this injustice, but we should channel that anger and use that money to deliver our own justice in the form of a club whose only stated intention is promotion next season.

That’s where our focus must now lie, beginning with a demand for a start date for the new season from the SPFL. We cannot be stopped from playing and clubs in our league have indicated they are able to play. League One MUST start in a similar timescale to the Championship. The SPFL has no reason to further harm our club by delaying the announcement of our fixtures when announcing other leagues.

As a member of the SPFL, we feel badly let down especially by its Board and Chairman. In allowing harm to be done to some members, as they have done, can the SPFL really still be regarded as a membership organisation that works in the best interests of all its members, one that genuinely acts on behalf of the membership as a whole? In all of its actions of recent months, the SPFL has shown it is not fit for purpose. That must be addressed, claiming to only do what members tell them is an assertion that has now worn thin.

Finally, what has also been made clear today is that, despite this being the worst of times, a majority of Scottish football wasn’t prepared to stand by its own. There are a number of honourable exceptions, who know who they are – to all of you we say thank you, we will not forget.

ROOM FOR ONE MORE?

The following day Thistle announced that they were joining forces with Hearts in the legal battle. This was made possible by the promise of funding from an unnamed source. There would be no cost to the club. The club statement is reproduced below.

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Heart of Midlothian Football Club and Partick Thistle Football Club have today lodged a petition with the Court of Session to challenge the unfair and unjust decision of the SPFL to enforce relegations, to the extreme detriment of those clubs affected. Unfortunately, Scottish football has been unable to pull together at this time of national crisis to obviate the need for this legal challenge. We desperately hoped Court action would not be necessary, but we were left with no other option.

For clarity, our petition does not seek to set aside or unravel the fee payments made to clubs, nor indeed the declaration of Champions, or the nomination of clubs who will participate in European competition. Instead, the petition primarily seeks to reduce the unfair resolution insofar as it changed the SPFL’s rules on promotion and relegation. If that remedy is not granted by the Court, we seek, in the alternative, awards of compensation relative to the significant financial loss which the unfair relegations will visit upon us.

As matters stand, we have not asked the Court to grant an interim interdict which would prevent next season commencing on 1 August. However, we have to reserve our right to do so in the event that becomes necessary. We would emphasise instead that we have no wish to disrupt Scottish football but rather our aim is to have the proceedings litigated to a conclusion as quickly as possible. In that regard, the Court has today granted our motion to reduce the normal period within which the SPFL must answer our petition to 7 days. No further comment will be made by either Club at this time.

FASTEN SEATBELTS

On 17th June Hearts and Thistle duly lodged a joint petition at the Court of Session challenging the unfair resolution insofar as it changed the SPFL's rules on promotion and relegation. An Interim Interdict was not sought (at this stage). The SPFL, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers were given 7 days to respond to the petition.

The joint statement issued by both clubs made no mention of actual amounts of compensation but the following day BBC Sport reported compensation claims of £8m (Hearts) and £2m (Thistle) had been lodged. Since the SPFL constantly asserts it has no money (only the clubs’) any compensation would have to come from the clubs themselves. Press reports suggested that clubs were so outraged by the double threat of an interim interdict preventing the season from starting and successful compensation awards that some were calling for a vote to expel Hearts and Thistle from the SFA.

On 19th June the 3 promoted clubs, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers, issued a joint statement announcing that they had engaged legal counsel to vigorously protect their promotions against the implied threat.

It was subsequently reported that they were canvassing the remaining 37 SPFL clubs for support to oppose Hearts and Thistle. The “Daily Record” claimed on 25th June that they had received the support of a number of clubs – including at least two “big name” clubs – such was the “disgust” felt towards Hearts and Thistle. Offers of funding towards their legal costs were said to have been pledged. Ironically the threat of legal action seemed to have worked wonders in uniting some clubs! The chairman of Ross County issued a statement that Thistle and Hearts “should take their medicine”. (See below.)

SPFL BOARD SEEKS NEW POWERS

On 24th June the SPFL issued a resolution seeking authority (for season 2020/21 only) to make all COVID-19 related decisions. In an effort to avoid the “rancour and division” (their phrase) of the last few months being repeated, discussion with clubs would still take place but there would be no actual votes. With just a hint of contrition, the resolution also admitted that current SPFL rules did not adequately cover curtailment of a season. The Board also advised clubs that votes in support of the resolution would not be allowed to be changed once received, but not the other way round. (Dundee FC please note!) On 24th July they announced that the “clear will” of member clubs was to reject this proposal.

SPFL BOARD WRITE OUT AGAIN

On 27th June Hearts and Thistle issued a joint statement saying that along with the other 40 SPFL clubs they had received a letter from the SPFL CEO regarding the forthcoming court case. The content was not disclosed. The statement read:-

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It is wrong and much of its content is misleading and the timing itself questionable. We are currently awaiting legal advice on what needs to happen next.

The “Daily Record” reported that they had seen a copy of the letter. A number of clubs had asked to see the documents lodged with the Court of Session. Explaining that that would be illegal, clubs were advised that the only way to see the documents was to join the SPFL and the 3 promoted clubs as respondents in their legal battle with Hearts and Thistle. The services of the SPFL’s legal adviser were offered to them if they wished to do so. The paper speculated that Hearts and Thistle might interpret this letter as tantamount to soliciting the support of more clubs to add weight to their case in court and that it breached the SPFL’s duty of care toward all 42 clubs.

LOWER LEAGUE PROGRESS

League 1 and 2 clubs met on 22nd June to discuss start date options of 1st August (36 matches), 17th October (27 matches) or December/January (18 matches) or any other alternatives they had to offer. October 17th emerged as the preferred option, bringing the 2 leagues into line with the Championship (27 games) who had earlier voted for that start date.

On 26th June clubs were asked to vote formally for a 17th October start. Clubs would play each other home and away followed by either 5 home/4 away fixtures or vice versa. League 1 clubs were advised that if they opted to “hibernate” then they would, effectively, be “relegated” to League 2 for season 2021/22 – their places being taken in 2020/21 by League 2 clubs who were prepared to carry on. If too few clubs planned to carry on in either division then an amalgamated league might have to be created for the season.

The SPFL announced on 2nd July that League 1 clubs had given ”resounding support” for a 17th October start. League 2 clubs also voted for this option the following day. There was no mention of what the consequences might be if a club started but failed to complete season 2020/21 – or, indeed, if a second wave of the virus curtailed the season.

M’LEARNED FRIENDS TAKE THE FIELD

The hearing in the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest civil court) began by video conference on 1st July, Lord Clark presiding.

Three possible outcomes were…

  • Case dismissed.
  • Case not a football matter and to be dealt with by the court.
  • Case a football matter and arbitration to be dealt with under SFA rules.

After 4 hours of dense legal argument (with an hour for a pie and Bovril) Lord Clark blew for time-up. There was no decision after 2 hours of extra time the following day. With the score still goalless two hours’ extra extra time was played on 3rd July and a result finally emerged. A summary of the main points made over the three days (9 hours) follows:-

SPFL and three promoted clubs (Respondents)…

  • Petition should be dismissed
  • Thistle and Hearts had had 2 months in which to take legal action.
  • By delaying they were solely responsible for making it almost impossible for arbitration to be concluded before the start of the Premiership season.
  • Case did not belong in the civil courts.
  • Arbitration rules in the SFA’s Articles of Association (AoAs) should have been followed.

Hearts and Thistle (Petitioners)…

  • Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010 applied irrespective of the SFA’s AoAs.
  • Premiership due to start on 1st August. Insufficient time for arbitration.
  • Petition was pertinent under the Companies Act. Not a football matter.
  • SFA’s AoA regarding arbitration had never been adopted by the SPFL.
  • SPFL clubs had no obligation to adhere to it.

It should be pointed out that relegation for Hearts and Thistle was not finally confirmed until the result of the vote on league reconstruction was announced on 15th June. They waited until all other avenues to reverse their relegations had been explored. Hearts announced they were taking legal action within hours of the announcement. Thistle joined them the following day. The “M8 Alliance” as they were dubbed by the “Daily Record”.

The contention raised by the Respondents that the delay in going to court was tactical was actually dismissed by Lord Clark in his judgement saying that no blame should be attached to Hearts and Thistle for not taking legal action sooner because they had exhausted all other possibilities before lodging their petition.

Also of note…

  • The SPFL admitted that the original Dundee vote (the one they claimed they had never received) had, in fact, been received at 4.48pm.
  • Counsel for the Petitioners said that if the court ruled this was not a football matter, calling the SPFL CEO and the Chairman of Dundee FC as witnesses might be necessary.
  • Counsel for the Petitioners asked for the recovery of all documents, e-mails, phone logs etc relating to the decision to relegate the clubs including (crucially) “the Dundee vote”.
  • Lord Clark commented about the penalties contained in the SFA’s arbitration rules, suggesting their lawfulness might need to be considered.
  • His opinion was that this whole matter would be best heard in open court but in law he had no choice but to reject the application.

The result…

  • The motion by Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers to dismiss the case was refused.
  • The Petitioners were contractually obliged to comply with the SFA and SPFL’s rules.
  • The case would not be heard in open court.
  • The SFA were ordered to appoint an independent arbitration panel to hear the case.
  • The SFA would not participate in the case, merely facilitate.
  • The request to recover documents was granted.
  • Documents were to be made available to the arbitration panel.

In the end, no side got what they hoped for. The three promoted clubs had their case thrown out. Hearts and Thistle’s petition to have the case heard in open court was rejected. The SPFL avoided a court case but would now have to make available all the relevant documents.

BUDDY CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?

On 6th July it was reported Cove Rangers and Raith Rovers had already shared a £50,000 legal bill with Dundee United. They issued statements saying there was so much at stake they would fight on despite the potential costs but they appealed for funding from other clubs and set up crowdfunding campaigns. Their statements claimed they had to win the case in order to uphold the sporting integrity of the SPFL. Irony seemed to be in short supply once again.

Three days later the BBC reported that these three clubs had approached selected SPFL clubs to pledge funding towards their legal fees at the rate of £5,000 per club in the Premiership, £2,000 in the Championship and £1,000 in Leagues 1 and 2. The following day Falkirk announced that they had not received such a request and that if they did, it would be “refused immediately”. As a result, Hearts and Thistle issued a joint statement as per below.

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As a matter of urgency, we would like to clarify our position alongside Heart of Midlothian in relation to the role being played by Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers in our case against the SPFL.

Those clubs were named in the Petition, along with Stranraer, because they are the clubs most likely to be impacted by a decision in our favour. We are not, and have never been, in direct dispute with them.

The SPFL is opposing our Petition and will do so at the forthcoming arbitration. Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers were not therefore required to litigate or arbitrate against us. However, they chose to do so.

For the avoidance of doubt, we accept that was a choice they were fully entitled to make, no doubt having been fully advised of the risks and costs. We absolutely know and understand that was not a decision to be taken lightly.

This is not about two clubs, Hearts and Partick Thistle, battling against other member clubs. This is about these two clubs battling against the organisation, which is meant to look after all of our interests, and holding them accountable for their prejudicial actions. We would contend that any club in our position would be taking similar action.

However, encouraging clubs to fund anyone’s costs in this process could create further division. We consider such an approach to be at odds with the fundamental requirement of the SPFL rules that the SPFL and each club shall behave towards each other with the utmost good faith. We cannot therefore let that pass without comment.

SFA GET INVOLVED

In mid-June the SFA Compliance Officer began an investigation into whether Hearts and Thistle had breached the SFA’s Articles of Association which require grievances to be brought before the governing body (ie, SFA) for arbitration rather than going to court. Having done so, clubs still wishing to take their case to the Court of Session must first seek the SFA’s approval. On 14th July (a few days before the start of the Arbitration Panel hearing) Thistle and Hearts were charged by the SFA for taking their case to court. A hearing was set for 6th August. The clubs issued a joint statement:-

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We are incredulous to have received a Notice of Complaint from the Scottish FA in the circumstances. It is oppressive of them to require submissions from both clubs by 20 July when we are, in terms of their own articles of association, actively engaged in arbitration. As our focus must be squarely on that, we have already requested the Scottish FA to review the timing to allow us to be properly prepared and represented. That is the very least we should expect from the process.

ON TO ARBITRATION

The teams took the field once again – unnoticed and to a fanfare of complete silence. An Arbitration Panel comprising three members, all with considerable legal backgrounds, convened on 17th July in accordance with the provisions of the Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010 and the SFA’s Articles of Association. Commencement of the proceedings was only announced the following day. The decision would be final. No details would be published unless all parties agreed. No appeal would be possible unless on the basis of a point of law, not the panel’s decision.

HERE ARE TODAY’S FOOTBALL RESULTS: LEGALS 3-0 REBELS

Announced on 27th July, the result was a unanimous decision by the 3 panel members to find in favour of the SPFL. There was no compensation award. The medicine had to be taken without a spoonful of sugar. (Chairman of Ross County please note.)

Once again the ridiculed organisation responsible for the governance of league football in Scotland emerged unscathed yet less than 3 months earlier 31% of member clubs had supported a proposal for an independent enquiry into their stewardship.

Because of the confidential nature of arbitration, the panel’s deliberations may never be open to public scrutiny. It can only be assumed that the panel did not consider the SPFL’s handling of the decision to “call” the season, including the (now infamous) Dundee vote, to be unsound in company law. They were clearly not concerned with fairness or injustice however.

A press release from the SPFL left no-one in any doubt that they were pleased! Extracts follow below from the Chairman and the CEO respectively.

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Throughout the process, and whilst under the most severe pressure, criticism and media scrutiny, the SPFL has followed appropriate legal guidance and acted in accordance with the best interests of the SPFL as a whole at all times.

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This is a clear, comprehensive and unanimous decision. I am absolutely delighted that our approach has been vindicated throughout, following an intense period of legal scrutiny and review. It has been a very demanding process, but I had complete confidence in the actions and decisions of the SPFL board and the SPFL executive team.

The “interests of the SPFL as a whole” comment had a hollow ring to it and the “absolutely delighted” comment was particularly insensitive and unbearably smug. A more conciliatory tone might just have started a healing process. The decision of the panel could possibly make a number of staff in both clubs redundant. Two days later the SPFL CEO was quoted in “The Herald” dismissing the whole thing. Who could he possibly mean?

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I think the whole process has been largely misunderstood by a number of people.

The panel’s decision was announced by several news outlets before the SPFL’s official statement was released after which Thistle and Hearts issued the joint statement reproduced below. (The first paragraph is the official panel statement.)

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The tribunal appointed in terms of Scottish Football Association Article 99 issued its decision today. It unanimously held that the challenges to the Written Resolution of 15 April 2020 failed, and that the SPFL were entitled to pass, and give effect to, the Written Resolution and all that flowed from it. Accordingly it refused to grant any of the orders sought by Heart of Midlothian FC and Partick Thistle FC and continued the arbitration for submissions about expenses.

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As all Parties have been requested not to comment on the tribunal’s decision or reveal details of the hearings on the grounds of confidentiality, all we can only say is how disappointed and surprised we are at the outcome. We don’t regret taking this action as it was the right thing for us to do. There were better ways to deal with ending the season, fairer ways other than putting the burden of a pandemic on to three clubs.

Both clubs then issued their own statements. They too might have been more conciliatory and several commentators were unimpressed by the “whole world against us” tenor. Hearts’ owner Ann Budge deplored the “self-congratulatory” tone of the SPFL’s press release. Inevitably however, it was a case of looking to the future and issuing rallying cries to fans and club chairmen/owners. It remained to be seen how many of the latter were listening. Thistle’s statement follows in full, Hearts’ is an extract.

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The last four months have been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us who are part of the Partick Thistle family. No one expected a pandemic on the scale that hit the country in March. It’s been difficult at times to feel that football was important in the face of so much loss.

But we could not ignore what was happening. Relegation isn’t just about what league you play in. It’s about everyone who plays for us, the staff who work at the club, our partners and sponsors, volunteers and, most importantly, our fans. With a 144-year history, we had a responsibility to ensure that if there was a chance to overturn an unfair situation, we had to do all we could.

At every turn, we tried our best to get involved positively to ensure that no club would be left worse off as a result of an early end to the season. We tried to find a way through by making our views clear but decently and respectfully. Having exhausted every avenue, when we were presented with the opportunity to join with Hearts to fight this injustice, at no cost to the club, we took it. But it was not to be.

So we draw a line, we have taken the fight to its conclusion. Our sole focus and our energy is now on the season ahead. Our key word for the year ahead is “success” not “survival”. The Board has already approved a financially responsible and balanced budget for season 2020/21 that gives the manager what he asked for to achieve everyone’s desire for an immediate return to the Championship. The fightback has started.

But I ask everyone associated with Thistle to never forget today. To never forget how it feels to be relegated unfairly. To never forget that there are many good decent people and clubs in Scotland who stood with us, publicly and privately – but there are some whose fear and self-interest got in the way of doing the right thing.

The Board, CEO and I are grateful for the unwavering support as we have navigated our way through this crisis. This is now a defining moment in our history, it’s time to stand together and make season 2020/21 a winning one regardless of what the rest of football says or does.

We have every right to be angry. So let’s use that anger as the fuel that drives our campaign in 2020/21. This is now about Thistle, no one else. Our fate and our success once again lie in our own hands and our hands only. (Jacqui Low, Chairman, Partick Thistle FC.)

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What has been allowed to happen in Scottish football, where fellow member clubs and our governing bodies have stood back and allowed totally disproportionate financial damage to be imposed on 3 of its members, can only be described as shameful… as indeed, should the SPFL’s recent self-congratulatory statement. For too long, Chairmen and Owners have stood on the sidelines bemoaning the decision-making processes, the perceived lack of leadership, the lack of commercialism; the general shortcomings, as they see it, of Scottish football. However, if they really want things to change, it will take more than words. They will have to stand-up and be counted. (Heart of Midlothian FC.)

CHERRY-PICKERS, TORPEDOES AND BAD BLOOD

On 1st August the SPFL CEO said on BBC Sportsound he would have no objection to the Arbitration Panel’s judgement being made public. (He was, incidentally, still “absolutely pleased” with the result).

On 4th August the “Daily Record” claimed that, “as bad blood boiled over”, Thistle and Hearts had blocked a request by the SPFL to publish the Arbitration Panel’s judgement (not the evidence) in full. They claimed the clubs had “torpedoed” the request claiming the SPFL only wanted to cherry-pick and publish the best bits. A joint statement from the clubs was printed but neither club posted this statement on their website.

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We can confirm that the SPFL requested the judgment, and judgement alone, from the recent arbitration be shared with other member clubs – a request we opposed. Hearts and Partick Thistle always wanted this matter to be heard in open court in the interest of total transparency. If the SPFL hadn’t sought to have court action sisted for arbitration then all hearings would have taken place in the public domain, including necessary examination of witnesses, consideration of documentary evidence and full legal submissions. We don’t believe sharing the judgment on its own would be appropriate. Hearts and Partick Thistle have fully respected the rules and directions of the tribunal to ensure privacy of the proceedings.

It is not surprising that Hearts and Partick Thistle expect the same respect for the tribunal’s directions and rules to be adhered to by the other parties who insisted on that forum for the dispute. The SPFL went so far as to tell the member clubs that if they even wanted sight of their answers to the Court of Session petition, they needed to enter court proceedings. We understand SPFL board members were not even allowed sight of their answers. The SPFL insisted on a private arbitration, it is not now appropriate for it to seek publicity of only one part of proceedings.

SFA HOT WATER AND POWERBROKERS

The paper took the opportunity to remind their readers that both clubs “could find themselves in more hot water…when they are hauled up in front of the Scottish FA powerbrokers”. Both clubs were duly “hauled up” before the SFA’s Judiciary Panel on 6th August to answer a charge under Disciplinary Rule 78 that they had broken SFA Articles of Association Rule 99 by going to court. Possible SFA penalties are summarised below. A comprehensive list of sanctions, but there is no mention of hot water.

  • Censure
  • Fine (maximum £1,000,000 for Hearts, £500,000 for Thistle)
  • Suspension from the SFA
  • Expulsion from the Scottish Cup
  • Any combination of these penalties
  • Such other penalty, condition or sanction as the Judicial Panel considers appropriate.

As it turned out, both clubs were fined £2,500 - a surprisingly low sum leaving them a little more cash to pay their legal bills that were still to be confirmed. The clubs issued what would hopefully be their last joint statement.

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Hearts and Partick Thistle acknowledge the decision of a SFA Judicial Panel earlier today. Whilst we are naturally disappointed by this outcome, we nevertheless consider that the sanction applied by the Panel reflects that the petition issued by the clubs before the Court of Session was brought in good faith. We look forward to putting these matters behind us and focusing on the season ahead.

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER… IT IS NOW

The whole shameful episode ended where it had begun with Thistle facing life in the 3rd tier of Scottish football. Unable to counter the realities of Covid-19 and constrained by Government restrictions, the SPFL failed to find a way to ensure that at the very least no club would be worse off because the season had been “called”. Stronger leadership might have persuaded the clubs that league reconstruction was “the least unacceptable” solution in these unprecedented times. However, as the SPFL CEO is fond of saying, “The SPFL is a members’ organisation”. A euphemism for “Don’t blame me guv, I only work here”.

By co-incidence, largely unnoticed by the West of Scotland Press, on the day the panel’s decision was announced, the “Press and Journal” reported comments made by the Aberdeen Chairman. He called for an overhaul of Scottish football, the SPFL, its commercial performance, its branding etc and the need for directors and owners of clubs to get together for the common good to maximise revenue generation. Perhaps someone was listening after all?

In one sense it is all academic. Covid-19 alone will decide if season 2020/21 lasts the distance and whether all 42 clubs survive. Another curtailed season will show whether the SPFL Board and Executive have learned anything from their “victory”. Having already failed to win support for their proposal to take executive powers on all Covid-related matters, future decision-making remains in the hands of the same chairmen/owners who failed to grasp the nettle thistle first time round.

Publishing date An original Thistle Archive publication, 07-Sep-2020.
Latest edit date Latest edit version 03-Sep-2020.





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