The SFA have had to make a humiliating climb down over the two four-game touchline suspensions they imposed on Celtic manager Neil Lennon. The governing body were advised by an independent counsel that the interpretation of their own rules are legally unenforceable, and that Neil Lennon can return to the dugout on 9th April 2011, against St.Mirren at Celtic Park.
The Official SFA statement read, “In October 2010, the Scottish FA announced that a review of its Disciplinary Procedures would be undertaken to provide greater transparency and urgency in dealing with individual cases. This review would also seek to identify areas where changes were required to ensure the rules were legally enforceable.
“Given the increasingly high stakes in football and the millions of pounds clubs are competing for in Europe, rules written by administrators to govern member clubs of the Scottish FA are being challenged on legal grounds. This is creating a situation where substantial sums are being invested in legal fees at a time when the game simply cannot afford it.
“One such case is the recent misconduct charge involving Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, following the Old Firm match on 2nd March 2011. As a result of his behaviour on the night, Lennon was issued with an automatic four match suspension which came on top of a previous four match suspension relating to a separate incident. Based on custom and practice the Scottish FA indicated to Celtic that the second suspension should be applied consecutively meaning that the manager would miss all matches up to and including 17th April 2011.
“The club accepted that the manager was guilty of the misconduct charge but challenged the application of the rule insisting that it was not clearly stated that the two suspensions should run consecutively. Their legal advice suggested that the two suspensions should run concurrently.
“The Scottish FA has received independent counsel advice on this point and regrettably has been advised that its interpretation of the rule is legally unenforceable. As such, the club have been notified that Lennon can return to the dugout on 9th April 2011.”
A statement on the matter from Celtic FC said, “We note the lengthy statement issued today by the SFA in connection with the very straightforward issue of Neil Lennon’s suspension running consecutively or concurrently. We are pleased that the SFA has recognised that Celtic’s position is absolutely correct. Consequently we look forward to Neil returning to the dugout for the match against St Mirren on April 9, 2011.”
The statement added, “It should not have been necessary for Celtic Football Club to involve our lawyers in this simple matter, and we would have much preferred not to have had to do so. But it is vital that the SFA properly applies the rules that it imposes, whatever those happen to be. The SFA cannot operate above the law or its own rules.
“A full review of the SFA disciplinary procedures is clearly required and we note that the SFA are addressing this matter. We are supportive of this and hope that legal interventions will not be necessary in the future. We will continue to protect the interests of Celtic and fairness and, as a member club, hold the SFA to account if required.”
SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan said, “We have discussed the matter with Celtic Football Club and they accept that Neil Lennon was guilty of misconduct. However, with regard to the timing of the suspension we must accept that if our rules cannot be enforced in a court of law then they cannot be imposed and it is foolish to waste money defending such a point. We acknowledge that our rules do need updating and I have proposed to our Board that we commission a complete re-write of the Disciplinary Procedures from a legal perspective to address this whole matter. In addition, we will be debating this matter with our Council later this month. Whilst we have an obligation to ensure that our rules can be legally enforced, nevertheless it is important for the future of Scottish football that we do not allow our disciplinary procedures to be used as a costly legal playground. We must ensure we can reach a happy balance where every decision is not subject to an appeal and football can self-govern without constant legal interventions.”
Back in March Neil Lennon’s solicitor Paul McBride QC, warned the governing body over trying to impose the punishments consecutively, “I wish the SFA would start to grow up and behave responsibly,” he said. “Nothing the SFA do surprises me any more. I thought it was a simple matter to confirm whether it is a four-match ban or an eight-match ban. But, as a matter of law, there is no question in my mind at all, it is a four-match ban.”
“I have looked at the SFA rules in some detail,” McBride went on. “There is provision for players to serve consecutive bans. There is no provision for managers or club officials to serve consecutive bans, at all. Neil Lennon did not challenge the fact that he should have received some kind of suspension [for the Old Firm Scottish Cup tie at Parkhead. He got a four-match suspension. He didn’t appeal that. He accepted his conduct fell below an appropriate standard. The only dispute apparently in the minds of the SFA is whether it is consecutive or concurrent.”