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EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster

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SZ: Neil, you previously held positions within English Football both with The Football League, the FA and with Norwich City before taking up the SPL Chief Executive role in July 2009. How does your role at the SPL differ from those you took on in England?

ND: I think the role of a league CEO is broadly similar, whichever country you’re in. The faces and the numbers may be different, but the issues are really very similar.

SZ: In your opinion what are the differences – both positive & negative – in the way that the Scottish game is run compared to that of the English game?

ND: The overhaul of the Scottish FA that Stewart Regan has achieved demonstrates that in Scotland there is a real desire to see change and improvement – and an ability, within the SFA, to drive it through. That aside, I think there are many parallels between the way the game is run in Scotland and the way it is run in England.

In both countries there is a belief that the leagues somehow have power, independent of their member clubs, to make decisions. The reality, of course, is that leagues can only do what their member clubs want them to do and vote for.

SZ: I believe that you stated previously that the money received from TV companies was the lifeblood of the Scottish game. Are the fans not the real lifeblood of our game?

ND: Absolutely, fans are the lifeblood of the game. Without fans, there is no game and the SPL and our clubs need to do everything we can look after existing fans and open the game up to new fans.

But we cannot deny the importance of TV companies to the Scottish game. Last year the SPL distributed over £17 million to our clubs and the bulk of this money comes from our TV deal so we need to ensure we work with TV companies to deliver value for our clubs, raise the profile of the game and bring great coverage of the league to supporters.

SZ: Football attendances in Scottish Football as a whole have fallen considerably over the years – in your opinion why is this?

ND: Scottish football is no different to other leagues or other sports across the world in that the ongoing global recession has had a severe impact on fans’ ability to follow their teams.

In the face of the worst global financial climate since the Depression, attendances have fallen but marginally rather than considerably – last season attendances fell by around 2%.

Our clubs are working hard to make football more affordable and enjoyable for fans. Some clubs have frozen season ticket or match ticket prices, others are reducing the costs for families by offering free or discounted children’s season tickets.

Motherwell’s Wellevate initiative offers a free child season ticket with the purchase of an adult season ticket anywhere in the ground and the club have reaped the rewards with a 10% increase in season ticket holders.

The winners of our first Family Champions award, St Mirren, have worked hard to create a family friendly environment at St Mirren Park and have reduced the cost of Under 12 match tickets to £2, incredible value for a Clydesdale Bank Premier League game.

Many of our clubs also work with local schools and community groups to offer tickets for games and give youngsters their first taste of Clydesdale Bank Premier League football.

There is always more that can be done but our clubs are certainly trying to attract more supporters through the turnstiles.

SZ: There are some in various quarters clamouring for Safe Standing sections to be implemented in the SPL. I talked to the SFA a year or so ago, and they stated that they would not stand in the way of such a proposal. When I state Safe Standing – I mean those that are seen in German Football. Are the SPL considering this? If not why not?

ND: We are very much open to looking at ways to improve the match day experience and some of the most common ideas suggested by fans are Friday night football, alcohol at games and safe standing.

The introduction of safe standing areas would require a change of SPL and SFA rules as both sets of rules prohibit standing in the top flight. Clubs would need to vote to change our rules in this area but we are open to the idea if any club wishes to explore safe standing.

SZ: Jock Stein was famously quoted as saying “Football is nothing without the fans is nothing”. Ticket pricing is having a major effect on the fans attending the games – such prices are steadily increasing year on year – what can the SPL do to help entice the fans back and to cut costs for the fans to attend games?

ND: As mentioned above our clubs are working hard to make football more affordable but the SPL has no control over ticket prices as these are set by the clubs.

What the SPL can do is support our clubs to improve the overall match day experience for supporters through our Family Champions initiative. Attracting the next generation of supporters to our game is vital and if as a family you have an awful experience the first time you come to one of our games, no amount of promotions or cheap tickets will tempt you back.

Family Champions show clubs, through the eyes of real families, what each step of the match day experience from purchasing a ticket to buying a pie is really like. This identifies areas the club is performing well in and can build upon, whilst also showing where there is room for improvement.

St Mirren won the inaugural Family Champions award and Rangers won the award last year, but each club is working hard to improve the key parts of the match day experience.

Friday night football is another opportunity to entice more fans back. One of the most common ideas I hear from fans is Friday night football. Clearly this suits some fans more than others which is why we are piloting Friday night football this season. It is important that we understand the positives and negatives from Friday night games and get us much feedback from fans as we can. 8,333 fans attended the Aberdeen v Dunfermline game, 661 more than Aberdeen’s previous Saturday 3pm game and on the back of Aberdeen’s defeat to East Fife.

Motherwell v Hibs is always an entertaining game and with the added drama of playing under the floodlights, I would hope the game on Friday 2 December is even more exciting and attracts a strong crowd.

SZ: The SPL started earlier this season to help our clubs in Europe and to help alleviate potential fixture back logs during the winter and later in the season also. Given that our clubs were all knocked out of Europe – even though Celtic received a reprieve due to Sion rule breaking – will the SPL be looking at other plans to help our clubs in Europe, such as Summer Football?

ND: We are discussing the start date for next season with our clubs at the moment. Some clubs want to start early to help clubs in Europe and allow fans to enjoy football when the weather is at its best whilst others would prefer the start date to be in line with that of other domestic leagues to allow clubs to play in lucrative friendlies. The SPL Board make the final decision on the start date for 2012/13 and what is certain is that the SPL Board simply cannot please all of the clubs all of the time.

This summer, the public debate about the start date became more animated than usual. If by ‘summer football’ we mean playing our ten-month season from March to December (like the Russian league, for example), my view is that this would be a counter-productive move.

Going head-to-head with the World Cup or European Championships in June every other year seems to me one of the most damaging things we could do with our domestic league. While having a mid-season break during June would mean us starting or finishing the season in January or February each year – hardly the best time to do so.

Even the Russians are believed to be moving towards a traditional winter fixture schedule, to be more in line with the majority of the rest of Europe.

SZ: Stevie Frail mentioned after Celtic’s Youth Cup Final triumph last season that the major reason why the side were losing seven players was down to the demise of the Reserve League. Will the SPL re-instate the league and was its demise – solely due to finances? Was it an error of judgement in culling the league and has it had an effect on the development of Youth in Scotland?

ND: In 2009, a number of clubs brought forward a proposal to make participation in the Reserve League optional, which was subsequently approved by the majority of clubs.

Clubs will have their own reasons for voting in favour and in some cases the finances would have played a big part in their decision. However, the vote demonstrates the truth of what I have said above – it’s the member clubs who make decisions on what they want their league to be.

For many clubs there is a now distinct gap between their Under 19 team and the first team, leading to many young players being prematurely released before a meaningful judgement can be made on their abilities. This has driven the idea of Under 23 ‘Colt’ teams which would allow young players to play meaningful, competitive games on a regular basis against season professionals. This can only be of assistance in developing young players in Scotland for the benefit of clubs and ultimately the national team.

SZ: The issues at Rangers in terms of finances, have steadily become worse over the years – even more so with the recent court cases and the arrestment of funds by HMRC and Martin Bain. What impact will a potential scenario of Rangers going into administration have on the SPL as a whole?

ND: I am not commenting on Rangers or any other club but clearly a club entering administration would have an impact on the whole of Scottish football. In this situation the role of the SPL is to run the league competition and apply the rules of that competition. Under SPL rules, if any club enters administration, it is automatically deducted 10 points and cannot sign any new players while it remains in administration.

SZ: A lot of comments had been made in the media over the weeks and months after the so-called Old Firm shame game last season. How did you see the first Old Firm game of this season? Was it a fitting advertisement for SPL Football free from controversy and sectarian commentary?

ND: The first Old Firm game of the season was a fantastic advert for the Clydesdale Bank Premier League and it was pleasing to see the game in the headlines for the right reasons this season.

Do you agree with Neil Doncaster’s comments? Disagree? Let us hear your opinions and comments.

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About Author

scotzine

Andy Muirhead is the Editor of Scotzine and the Scottish Football fanzine FITBA. He is the Scottish Football columnist for The Morning Star and has written for a number of other publications including ESPN, Huffington Post UK, BT Life's a Pitch and has had his work featured in the Daily Record, The Scotsman and the Daily Mail.

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