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The Rise and Fall of Neil Doncaster

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Neil Doncaster is the administrative face of Scottish Football. In his role as SPFL chief executive he has attracted much criticism despite having to oversee the most traumatic period in his organisations history.

Much maligned, but always defiant Doncaster has an undoubtedly challenging job but few could say he is doing it well.

Born in Devon in 1970, Doncaster qualified as a solicitor from Bristol University and joined Norwich City in 1997 as company secretary and solicitor. Highly thought of in the English game he enjoyed a meteoric rise to Head of Operations then Chief Executive and then joined the board of the Football Association as director of the Football League. Doncaster received widespread praise for his work at Norwich and oversaw promotion to the Premier League in 2005 but resigned following their relegation in 2009, also leaving his positions with the F.A and Football Leagues.

In July 2009, Doncaster arrived in Scottish football as SPL chief executive, a position he held until July 2013 when he saw of David Longmuir to the same role in the SPFL following restructuring of Scottish Football.

Unfortunately his time in charge coincided with the most tumultuous period in the history of our national game but it is difficult to say he has handled it well.

Without doubt the crisis at Rangers will define Doncaster’s reign.

In February 2012 Rangers were placed into administration and then liquidated. Doncaster headed the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have Rangers inserted into the second tier.

Initially he was criticised for a delay in dealing with the Rangers situation. Despite entering administration in February it took until July, just weeks before the season started for Rangers, and all the other clubs in Scotland to learn what division they would be playing in.

The writing had been on the wall for some time, Doncaster should have acted quicker. Not only was it unfair on Rangers but it was grossly unfair on many other teams. Finding out their oppositions and so final budget only weeks before the season kicked off put many clubs in an almost impossible situation, particularly Dundee.

Initially, they were the prime beneficiaries of Rangers demise with a rushed promotion to replace them in the top flight. With next to no time to prepare for life in the top league they struggled badly and manager Barry Smith lost his job.

Doncaster and his compatriots handling of the affair was not only poor but grossly unfair.

He was also widely condemned for the scare and bully tactics he adopted whilst attempting to force Rangers into the second tier.

Doncaster threatened that the SPL would be unable to pay clubs their annual settlement unless Rangers or Sevco Scotland Limited were allowed into the second tier.

Along with his compatriot at the Scottish FA Stewart Regan, Doncaster infamously threatened Armageddon if Rangers were forced to start again at the bottom of the league structure. They reasoned that without four Old Firm games a season the league’s broadcast partners would be entitled to walk away.

In actual fact both Sky and ESPN signed new, albeit smaller deals. Attendances increased at most clubs in Scotland and many are now not only debt free but turning over a profit. The Armageddon claims are now rightly a figure of ridicule.

Rangers’ downfall also presented an opportunity. Scottish league football could now have a long overdue restructuring.

Supporters got excited at a refreshing change to a stale league structure as speculation mounted as to what was in store. The reality was massively underwhelming.

Having failed with his initial plan to take the SPL back to the previously unpopular ten team structure despite warning that this is the only way forward Doncaster unveiled his unimaginative rebranding of the league structure.

The second tier was now known as The Championship, copied directly from the English model at no doubt phenomenal time and financial cost.

This laughable rebrand actually concealed some really positive steps.

The SPL and SPFL being merged into one should make governance easier and redistribute wealth more fairly to the second tier.

Voting rights were more equitably distributed on a one club one vote basis and the pyramid structure allows easier access for non league clubs.

The return of the playoffs have also been popular, rejuvenating relegation and promotion battles and culminating in Hibernian’s exciting collapse to Hamilton last season. For many supporters it wasn’t enough but it was a positive step, albeit concealed by a rotten name.

Doncaster has a talent for hiding good news.

He also has an uncanny talent for irritating both sides of an argument.

Doncaster’s stance on the Rangers situation isolated him from most Scottish football supporters who felt he was bending over backwards to keep Rangers happy. Yet when Rangers were forced to start again at the bottom of the league structure Doncaster incurred the wrath of their supporters who felt he could have helped them more.

It is a real talent to please nobody.

He went some way to placating Rangers fans when he announced that in his and his organisations view Rangers were still the same club following administration.

However, this was courting controversy totally unnecessarily. Many people have strong views on this and lots of other Scottish football supporters, primarily from the other side of the Glasgow divide were left infuriated by Doncaster’s stance.

But perhaps Doncaster’s biggest embarrassment is the failure to attract a sponsor for the league. It has been over three years since Clydesdale Bank announced they were severing ties and still the signature competition in Scotland’s most popular sport is without a sponsor.

20% of the SPFL’s income should come from sponsorship. It is a huge blow. Again this is a classic example of Doncaster and his compatriots not promoting or valuing Scottish football enough.

If they spent more time championing their product rather than belittling it, attracting a backer should not be difficult.

Less popular sporting events have significant financial backing. Golf’s Scottish Open receives 15 million pounds over six years and closer to home, William Hill pay one million to sponsor the Scottish Cup for two years. The income could be vital, especially in times of austerity.

For an intelligent individual in a public position Doncaster has frequently shown an embarrassing lack of media savvy. Often he doesn’t help himself.

Despite his many failings Doncaster’s reign has seen some positives, he is just too hapless to publicise them.

Standing at football grounds has been a popular idea amongst many supporters since all seater stadiums were introduced. In December 2011 it was announced that rules were to be relaxed to allow standing at SPL Grounds.

Despite nine of the twelve clubs being interested none have developed standing areas. This is not Doncaster’s fault. The fault lies at him failing to publicise such a widely popular decision.

Other successes have also attracted contempt rather than praise. Whilst concern mounted over domestic broadcast deals Doncaster announced an overseas deal which would see Scottish football broadcast in over sixty countries over nine years. This was Doncaster’s first announcement in his new role but most felt his triumphalism was misplaced as he should have been securing deals closer to home with sponsors and broadcast companies, especially if Scottish football is as intense and vibrant as Doncaster claimed.

The television deals he has brokered have also proved controversial. Around three quarters of a million pounds have been handed back to television companies due to Rangers’ absence from the top flight and an absence of Old Firm games.

Doncaster claims this is necessary to prevent the television companies from walking away. It seems to be his default argument. No broadcaster has ever confirmed this.

Barry Hearn touched on this lack of media savvy in his brilliantly accurate savagery of Scottish football’s administrators. Hearn, an expert in promoting sports far less popular than football accused those who run our game of being lazy and willing to wallow in self-pity. He claimed if they worked for him, Scottish football’s administrators would be sacked. It is hard to disagree.

To rub salt into his detractor’s wounds Doncaster during the time of the Rangers crisis Doncaster’s salary increased by £28 000 to £200 000 a year.

This 16% pay rise flies in the face of his company’s income reducing by six percent and payment to member clubs falling by almost nine percent. Whichever way these figures are presented they are incredibly difficult to justify.

Despite most people seeing it as untenable, Doncaster’s position at the head of Scottish Football seems bulletproof.

Apart from his salary, precious few details about his contract are public. His unveiling in the job was even timed to miss the newspaper headlines.

Who knows how long Neil Doncaster will continue to run our game?

Another example of the lack of clarity and transparency that has plagued his leadership. But perhaps is biggest downfall is his failure to realise how good his product is.

Entering February the Scottish Premiership had a vibrant title race, competition for European places and an exciting relegation battle.

Not many leagues in Europe can say that.

Scottish football is not that bad but until those in charge realise that our national game may never flourish. Promoting and regulating Scotland’s most popular sport may have its challenges but should not be as difficult as Neil Doncaster often makes it look.

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