Raith Rovers chairman Turnbull Hutton stood on the steps of Hampden in front of the national press and called for the league reconstruction sideshow to end before it all came crashing down to earth.
Despite opposition to the SPL proposal of a league structure of 12-12-18, Hutton was in favour of it, he said: “Well I’m probably in the minority, I was in favour of the 12-12-18. I thought that was different and exciting enough to have something that they wouldn’t have seen before and the prospect of the sprint for the First Division title home and away settled by January, and then the bottom four from the SPL and the top four from the First Division entering essentially into a new competition, playing each other home and away with four places up for grabs, I thought that was tailor-made for Scottish football.”
He claimed that the ‘Scottish mentality’ over the format failing in Austria and Switzerland, not to mention the failure to sell the proposal well, put an end to it.
He added: “I don’t necessarily buy-in to that at all. One of them had run for 15 years. We don’t have a league structure that’s run for 15 years, and there seems to be other issues about the distribution of funds and issues with certain clubs in certain of these leagues. There’s a Scottish mentality that goes, ‘It didn’t work in Switzerland.’ That doesn’t mean to say it can’t work here, it could have been something really different that got a lot of attention.
“I don’t think it was necessarily sold all that well, but when you started to look into the possibilities, that kind of worked for me and that also took on-board a lot of the stuff the fans were saying, they didn’t want to play each other four times. We solved that with the 18 team third tier, that was home and away, that was what the fans wanted. Also in both the Premier League and the top of the First Division, that was introducing another new set of games with different teams. So there was probably 26 teams out of, 26 clubs out of 42 were going to be playing a different format from what they’d been previously, which played into what the fans wanted and I couldn’t quite understand why the second and third divisions went for the continuation of the 10, 10, that just seemed bizarre to me.”
The proposals confused the hell out of fans and pundits alike, but as Hutton stated earlier that’s because it wasn’t sold well enough. In fact Hutton claimed that right from the start, there seemed to be a lot of negativity.
He added: “I think it depended on how the clubs approached it. I know Dundee had a fans’ meeting and they were all against it going in and they were all for it coming out. We did the same at Kirkcaldy, explained it all, what it meant for us and how it could be. I couldn’t quite understand the Ross County view that said my manager doesn’t understand, the board doesn’t understand, the fans don’t understand it and the players don’t understand it. There was a line in there that said, ‘There must be a lot of dozy b*****ds north of Inverness?’
“It was kind of incumbent, I thought, on the clubs and the directors, the chairman, what have you, the managers to be selling that, but there seemed to be a negativity, right from the start, about this that was picked up on by the broadcasting media, the press.
“They were all against it, they were talking … there was the most unbelievable amount of trash talked about the thing. Then when it got to the point of the SPL fall-out with St.Mirren and Ross County, suddenly the same people who had been planning the thing were all then saying, ‘It could be quite a good idea, blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and the whole position was turned around.”
When asked if it failed mainly down to clubs looking to serve in their own best interests and rather than the game as a whole, Hutton admitted: “Yeah, I think that’s probably true.”
On the subject of playoffs, Hutton continued: “After having given up on the 12-12-18, there’s another attempt to try and reconstruct and suddenly playoffs come into play. If I was an SPL team like say St Mirren, for example, I would rather take my chances and play in the top four in the First Division, home and away, plus the other three at the bottom of the SPL home and away. In that mini league, they get one of our places to get up to the SPL than take my chance on a play-off game, because one off play-off games can end in absolute disaster. We had two seasons of play offs and we never got up via a playoff. One game where they goalie had a nightmare, essentially flung two in the net, that was it, whole season gone.”
He also targeted the lack of a play-off system to enter the Scottish Premier League, he added: “That’s been something that’s been sadly lacking for years because I understand how Morton must feel because we were in exactly the same position a couple of years back when we led the table for most of the season and we fell away at the end. We lost the big game at Dunfermline, who kicked on from that and won it.
“At the end of the season, we’d nothing to show for it, we’d have been as well finished seventh as finishing second, whereas if there had been an incentive of a playoff that would have kept the whole season going. So as soon as Morton hit their patch and Thistle came through their shaky spell, Morton was on catch-up, it was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, for them and you saw that they kind of fell away at the end as we did two years back.”
This season’s playoff games, specifically the Dunfermline-Forfar game at Station Park and then East End Park, were exciting. It caught the imagination of most fans online, but the lack of coverage [other than radio commentary]came in for serious criticism from many fans.
Hutton, claimed that one governing body would be able to sell such games to the TV companies, said: “I think the difficulty is, having the SPL and the SFL, they only need one body, and surely that one body, we know that there are, every season there will be a game in the divisions below the SPL, which will attract a big crowd – the Morton v Partick game was another one. The Dunfermline v Rovers game two years ago, 12,000 at East End Park, these are tailor-made for TV, but the way the TV deals are negotiated with all the different bodies makes it almost impossible.
“Therefore, if we could get one body running Scottish football, there has to be then flexibility built into whatever TV deals there are. There’s a raft of companies that are longing to show games, but they’re kind of in negotiations. We saw that with the deal for the Rangers games being televised, it’s a convoluted way of spreading money around the game, what have you. There must be a better way of doing it than that.”
With clubs looking at their own self-interests rather than the game as a whole, despite the rhetoric they peddle in public, I asked if an independent committee would have been a better idea to propose said league reconstruction plans – with a take it or leave it mentality.
Hutton added: “Well, there’s certainly a case for that. You could argue that’s what Henry McLeish set out to do, but there are interests of the SPL clubs, there’s all the teams that have all got a point of view, everybody has got a different working model in terms of how they finance their clubs. I’ve been a critic it’s easy to say what’s wrong, actually trying to sort it, it’s not without its difficulties, I certainly don’t underestimate the difficulties that they’ve had.
“There was probably a case for saying what kind of structure is it we want, let’s put together that structure and let the leagues reorganise underneath that new structure. We’re trying to do that the other way around, we’re trying to rehash the leagues and then the structure was almost an afterthought.”
During the discussions of the 12-12-18 league revamp, then-Rangers chief executive Charles Green spoke out in opposition against it and that Rangers not having a vote was inconceivable.
Hutton hit back at the Yorkshireman, he said: “Well I can really can’t see where the hell he’s coming from. Rangers imploded and came in to the Third Division and were prepared, as I understood it, to work their way through the leagues, buy a bit of time, sort out their issues and get back in three seasons to the SPL. Everybody seemed to be quite happy with that, that was my understanding.
“We came out of Hampden when that decision was made, there were Rangers fans there that were delighted that that had happened, but Charles Green came in with his proposals, he knew they didn’t have a vote. How much of it was grandstanding and mischief making, I don’t know.”
When asked if it was pandering to an element within his support along with the media who were against the league proposals, Hutton added: “Yeah, I mean I don’t know what his motives were, but there was an element of grandstanding going on with him, whether it was Dallas Cowboys, whether it was the ten million transfer kitty for McCoist. Whatever it was, it’s all been well documented. What I think about Rangers has got no bearing at all because I’m only finally interested in Raith Rovers. Rangers are where they are, they cleared the first hurdle and won that league, I’ve no doubt they’ll clear the second hurdle and, you know, then it’s a different ball game and they’re back in the First Division.”
With the 12-12-18 proposals being blocked and subsequently 13 member clubs of the Scottish Football League not agreeing to the proposed shake-up of the current league system, ten SFL clubs want to break away from the SFL and join the SPL under an SPL2 league. The ten clubs, include Turnbull Hutton’s Raith Rovers side.
On the SPL2 proposal, Hutton said: “We came out of Hampden last year when we had been talking about SPL2 and the view from all the clubs, especially the First Division clubs, was they wanted a solution for all 42 clubs. There was a view that several meetings ago, that what we had was a 28-1 vote for the proposals that were on the table and then it would appear that certain forces came into play and 28-1 became 14-14. At that point, you say well, we cannot go on like this.
“The SPL then, after being unanimous and going to go ahead with their changes they come out with a 10-2 vote. There was a feeling among a whole lot of people that said well, that’s it, we’ve done our best, there’s no change, and I suppose the breakaway or the proposed breakaway of the First Division clubs was a means whereby we were trying to get a debate reopened. Everybody that spoke or has spoken about the First Division breakaway, as it’s called, or the proposed breakaway, has been at pains to point out that what we want is a 42 club solution and that’s still the case.
“If the threat of a breakaway has had the effect of making people think that there is a danger of things fragmenting, therefore we’ll be better if we got our thinking caps on and did something as an entity, that has to be good and maybe that’s where we’re at just now. I mean I don’t have any details, but the meeting of the Second and Third division clubs last week in Stirling, what the Montrose chairman said, kind of led you to think that there’s going to be.
“You’re never going to get everything you want in any kind of reorganisation. SPL probably haven’t got what they want, SFL haven’t got what they want, but if you’re going to merge two organisations and try and move it forwards, you’ve got to be prepared to give and take a wee bit and there has to be an element of trust in there. For whatever reasons latterly, you’ve got the feeling that that element of trust to make it happen wasn’t there and that there was vested interest and short-term opportunities and scores being settled, what have you. That it got the point that something had to materialise to concentrate their minds again and maybe that was the threat of the First Division breakaway.”