This article was originally going to be very different, detailing, month to month, the main events in Scottish football over the last year. It’s no longer going to do that, because, frankly, it would have run into ten thousand words and much of it would have bored you to death.
Instead of being a blow by blow account, this’ll be an overview. It’ll be quicker to write, easier to read and the emails will flood in about all the things I’ve missed. There will be hundreds of major events that don’t make the cut. This article does not seek to classify those I’ve mentioned as being of greater import … but they clicked for me.
Let’s start with the first thing. The year ends with Armageddon Averted; Scottish football clubs have never been in better financial health, and the incredible part about this is that it’s been achieved at a time when the people supposedly running the game here have lurched from drama to crisis and failed miserably to rebuild the game’s commercial reputation, which they themselves had guttered when they were threatening the clubs in the wake of Rangers’ collapse.
It astounds me that the people who have gotten their clubs to this point still allow the likes of Regan, Doncaster and Oglivie to be the public faces of the governing bodies, when they are an embarrassment to the game, and a blight on their institutions. The end of the year saw them take a positive step, with their decision not to allow Mike Ashley further influence at Ibrox, but that wreckage of a club remains a monument not only to the catastrophic mismanagement within its own walls but to the failures of oversight that allowed it in the first place.
I’ll come to the Sevco situation later. The other clubs in this fair land deserve more than just a couple of paragraphs at the start of this piece, and if I move on, now, to the organisation operating out of the offices behind the Marble Staircase like a crime syndicate I’ll have no room for anything else.
Edinburgh has been the centre of a lot of this year’s most famous events. Hearts were doomed to relegation when the year began. The question was whether they would survive at all. Not only did they, but they rebuilt their club in a fashion that has Sevco fans looking on in envy and disbelief.
Purely and simply, Hearts did everything right. They ran a proper administration for a start – not one that is likely to see its authors winding up in court. They slashed costs across the board, amongst the playing squad in particular, knowing full well what that would mean to a club which had already been deducted 15 points. They put their faith in youth, and they were fully prepared for the consequences of that.
Their supporters kept the faith. More than that, they dug deep, into their own pockets, and they kept on the lights and prevented the football club from going the Rangers Route to the Graveyard.
They end the year on a dizzying high, top of the Championship in spite of nearly every pundit writing them off, with a staggering 15 lead over Sevco, who in many ways represent their mirror image, the cautionary tale of what might have been.
They are blessed with an excellent, articulate young manager who knows his business, an attractive attacking football team which scores a lot of goals and a CEO who, like it or not, has come out swinging and is a no-nonsense type who can offer them much needed off-field leadership, in stark contrast to the appalling state of affairs we all knew so well from the days of Romanov.
Hearts will make their return to the SPL next year, and they will have earned that place, and the respect of the other clubs. They are not perfect; some of their supporters need to get a grip, something that, in fairness, could be said of every club, but they will be a welcome addition to the top flight, a team that plays the game well and has its act together off the pitch.
Hibs started 2014 in trouble.
Most of the pundits believed the appointment of Terry Butcher was the right one; I wasn’t so sure. He had taken a long time to stamp his mark on Inverness, to turn them into a credible side. The job at Hibs meant starting from scratch, with the clock ticking down. I wondered if he had the experience and the talent to pull it off, and from an early stage it was apparent that the malaise at that club went too deep.
From around March I started to feel there was something in the air at Easter Road. The team had taken on a doomed look, and I started to tell people I thought they were heading to the Championship with Hearts. When Hamilton scored with virtually the last kick of the ball in the playoffs it sealed a fate that, in truth, the club had been spinning towards for years.
Hibs started badly in the league, so badly in fact that many wondered how long the newly appointed Alan Stubbs would last. What turned it around was a storming first half performance at the home of Sevco, where the former Celtic manager drew something from his team that had Ally McCoist staring into his own grave as a coach.
Had Hibs gone on to score more in the second half, I am convinced the Sevco boss would have been on “gardening leave” by 1 October.
Now the club sits in third spot, and after absolutely destroying the Glasgow NewCo in a frightening efficient 4-0 victory only last week, they are in good shape for the playoffs. They, like Hearts, have done everything right, building a team of young, ambitious talents who are hungry for top flight football, with Scott Allan in particular standing out and looking the business.
Having predicted that they would go down last year, I said earlier in the season that they looked traumatised and in chaos, and I thought it might be a long while before they made it back to the SPL.
I was wrong. I think they’ll be back next season. They quite simply look a different club.
If Hibs do go up, it will be harsh on Queen of the South and Falkirk, two sides who know what they are about. The Queens, in particular, have been solid, and steady, for the last couple of years, building a great team on a shoe-string budget, preceding the Sevconian adventure with a rapid rise of their own, albeit with the added bonus of a Challenge Cup win along the way.
They have been dreadfully unlucky in the Championship this season, after getting to the play-offs last year and looking like one of the favourites to come up, only to find themselves facing not only Sevco but the Edinburgh clubs too. As spoilers for that playoff spot go, you wouldn’t bet against them though …
Aberdeen have had one Hell of a 2014, winning their first trophy in 19 years and continuing, under Derek McInnes, to develop into one heck of a good side to watch. They recently agreed deals to keep two of their top players – goal scorer Adam Rooney and winger Niall McGinn – at the club for extended periods, reflecting their growing confidence and financial stability.
They should probably have won a second trophy last season, reaching the semi-final where they were knocked out by eventual winners St Johnstone. They also secured third place in the SPL, and are hoping that 2015 will be the year they do even better.
Over in Dundee, you have to admire what Jackie McNamara has brought to the table since taking over. They play good football. They have exciting players, and now that their finances are sorted out they can afford to deter suitors with valuations of £3 million for indvidual stars.
Their scouting network, and the youth system, both work seamlessly, and produce the goods. They might well be the perfect model for how to run a football club in Scotland.
Their neighbours, Dundee, who headed down a blind alley with the appointment of Ned In Chief John Brown, have recovered nicely with Paul Hartley at the helm, and look a good side who are perfectly capable of consolidating their position in the league. 2014 was a good year for them, as they scooped the Championship. 2015 may yet see them scrap their way into the top six of the SPL.
It’ll be hard. St Johnstone are one of the clubs who stand in their way after a cracking 2014, where they won their first trophy, the Scottish Cup, against Dundee Utd at Celtic Park. They too look solid and capable, as they try to build on last season’s success story. They’ve also had a taste of European football, which they’ll certainly want another shot at, and they could do it too.
Hamilton are the real surprise package in the top half though. 2014 must have seemed like a fairy tale as their blazing brand of football took them to the Championship play-offs, after they narrowly missed out on automatic promotion despite a stunning end to the last campaign. They beat Hibs after one of the most dramatic finishes we’ve seen to a match in the game’s recent history here, returning to the SPL as most people’s favourites for the drop.
Yet their progress in the top flight has been frankly astounding. They are fourth in the league at the time of writing, in a European spot, and amazingly only six points off the top.
Inverness are now a solid performer in the league, and this has been another good year for them, sitting, as they are, in fifth place at the moment. To the outsider, it may look as if they are a club that has found its level, but the SPL, outside of Celtic, is wide open … and sooner or later one team will step up to provide the main challenge to the Parkhead club. Is that Inverness? This year will be interesting. They are five points off Aberdeen in second, and seven behind the champions.
Which brings me to Celtic. This has been a tumultuous year for Celtic, with a title win and then Neil Lennon’s decision to leave. I welcomed that decision, both from a footballing perspective and to allow Neil himself some time away from the stresses and strains which have stalked him from the time he took over as our manager.
There is a lot of talk in the press about how much “Coisty” has had to suffer as a coach, and those ridiculous articles and comments make my blood boil because nowhere in his time as boss was he sent bullets or bombs, or attacked in his dugout, or made a target for the boot boys on the streets. He enjoyed almost unlimited goodwill, which persists to the present day in spite of the evidence of his self-serving nature.
Lennon endured things no other manager in Scotland has, with a hostile press howling against him all the while.
Added to this was a level of hate amongst fans of others clubs, even outside the twin horrors of the Ibrox and Tynecastle supports, which was at times incomprehensible. What in God’s name did Neil Lennon, a thoroughly decent man and a consummate professional, do to deserve the appalling level of abuse he had to endure, everywhere he went?
None of that has followed him to England, where he is now weaving magic at Bolton. He is popular down there, and far more respected than he was here. It is a damning indictment of the scribblers and their tendencies that this guy was often painted as “his own worst enemy” and as somehow responsible for what he had to put up with.
Shame on them for that, and for much else besides.
Neil Lennon’s departure triggered an expected firestorm of media predictions and speculation. For a while it did seem like Roy Keane would be stepping into the managers shoes, but aside from a handful of pundits and former players the idea went down like a lead balloon. Celtic cyberspace made its position quite clear, with a resounding No.
This website never believed it was likely, and I said so in a piece at the time which speculated on whether the idea could ever have found favour within the walls of Celtic Park. It would have created a situation where the CEO had been over-ruled, and where his power would have been diluted. I have long argued that this is necessary – more on that in a minute – but not at the expense of the club’s internal stability, and ructions would have been assured with Keane in post.
It wasn’t to happen. Just as I thought, the board were looking for someone who would work within a budget, who would not challenge the orthodoxy of “The Strategy”, someone content simply to be at the club. His name was Ronny Deila, and six months on a lot of Celtic’s fans remain unconvinced.
I like him. I thought the appointment was a good one, and I admit that. I think if he’s given the resources to do it his way we will see a very, very good Celtic team. I worry that this will be allowed. I worry our board lacks the ambition for it. I worry that we’ve taken a decision to downsize towards the point where aspiring simply to win the title every year is the level they’ll settle for.
The most horrifying example of this came with our Champions League reprieve, following the hammering handed out to us by Legia Warsaw. A lot of us knew going into the games against the Polish club that Celtic was going to struggle. The routing we got was a shock to the system, though, one that showed how far we’d fallen and how far behind good sides our squad was.
When we were handed our gift from the Gods at UEFA, allowed back into the tournament after Warsaw’s paperwork snafu (which in Scotland would have been fine, provided they played out of Ibrox), myself and many others expected the board to have learned a lesson. I thought they’d provide the squad with a little additional support going into the games.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. One player arrived on a permanent deal after it was too late to matter, and the rest of Delia’s “signings” were brought to the club on loan.
It is a shocking state of affairs for a so-called “big club”, one that has guaranteed us a fraught January window if we don’t want a second period of rebuilding in the summer. Next season’s Champions League qualifiers – should Celtic get there, and that’s not a lock – will be as difficult as the ones where we proved so incapable this year.
That is bad planning alright, and that’s our fate because I honestly don’t expect major moves in the next month. The usual excuses will be trotted out – there are no players available etc – and there will be some kind of mad scramble on the last day, when the prospects are even less, and doubtless we will hear some good PR spin … but the team will be no stronger for it.
I hope I’m wrong. But confidence isn’t exactly high. Past precedent, and our awful summer, gives us some pointers as to how it’ll go.
Ronny’s ideas look good when they work though, as they have several times this season. The team is being asked to play in a new style, but I worry that he might be too wedded to it, and watching one man upfront trying to break down the likes of Ross County, with a ten man defence, is mind-numbing and depressingly awful.
Things have to change at Celtic Park in 2015.
From the outside, going up the Celtic Way, you’d swear this was a club that considered itself amongst world football’s elite. But scrambling over transfer fees, not wanting to pay the going rate in wages, being unwilling to push the boat out that extra mile to properly equip the manager … they are the strategies of a club that has run out of ideas on how to get better. We have a CEO who is on a salary that would have made McCoist’s eyes bulge, now effectively working for us part time as he climbs the SFA ladder.
He is the public face of The Strategy that saw us crash out of the Champions League twice in a month, and who has overseen a parade of different managers at the club since his appointment. As such, we’ve been robbed of a solid period of continuity and proper development. Not all of that is his fault, and indeed there is not a single Celtic fan who would rather have Graham Wallace at the helm, but some of the choices we’ve been forced to make in that time have contributed to the uncertainty. Something has to give there, and no mistake.
I think 2015 is a make-or-break year for Peter Lawwell. The empty seats around Parkhead have nothing at all to do with an environment without a club called Rangers. They have everything to do with a credit crunch, and people who see no sign of life in the Parkhead boardroom except at bonus time, and who have decided there’s a better use for their money.
Sevco fans are staying away because they don’t like the board. A lot of Celtic fans are staying away because they don’t like the direction our board is taking us. I firmly believe that. I know it because I am one of them.
It’s irritating to me, because I think on one hand that we’re lucky to have guys at the helm who run our club in a professional way. On the other I think it’s a nonsense that their method involves having the football club finance the business instead of the other way around.
January will be telling. The summer is do or die. If Celtic shows no sign of ambition beyond finishing top of the SPL and “making it” to the group stages of the Europa League – and that’s about the limit of where we were this year – then getting fans to renew their season tickets is going to be a tough sell, with or without Sevco in the top flight.
Which brings me to them, and to the story that has dominated the whole year.
I think the chances of us seeing them in the SPL next season are balanced somewhere between slim and none. They are an utter shambles, on and off the field, with a variety of media fantasies both sustaining and heightening the series of unreality that continues to surround them.
The gap between the Ibrox NewCo and Hearts on the pitch – fifteen points at the current time – is a shadow of that which exists between the two sides off it, which is incredible considering that Hearts were in as perilous a situation as Rangers for a while there, but handled it in a much more level-headed and sophisticated way.
Today’s news, that the so-called “Three Bears” have “grabbed control” is more spin from the people who brought you “Motherwell Born Billionaire” and who spent much of 2014 telling the world what a prize Graham Wallace was, until he wasn’t; what a good thing Mike Ashley was, until the penny dropped about what he was after; what a great guy Malcolm Murray was, until he was no longer in favour; how the “120 Day Review” would answer all the questions, until it didn’t … and on and on I could go.
If today’s “coup” is about getting changes, then you only have to look at the departure of “Scotland’s boy wonder” Lewis McLeod, for a paltry £800,000, to see how things stand. Changes, if they come, will be too slow … and probably too late.
To convene the EGM needed to get new faces on the board, they’ll need to apply for one. The present incumbents can make them wait five days before even agreeing to it. Following that, they have a further 21 days to schedule it.
If they call it today, we’re already deep into January before it can convene, and then what?
The club only has the money to reach the end of that month. The EGM might elect new directors, but they’d have a short window in which to work to meet payroll. Could they raise the money in time, without having to offer Ashley something? Doubtful. Would Ashely play ball, and give them further loans? Possibly, but in exchange for what?
To issue new shares would require one of two things; a new vote on Resolution 9, requiring 75% support (unlikely at best, as Ashely holds enough proxies and support from the Easdale’s to block it) or the existing plan, which would only allow existing shareholders to participate.
Either way, setting up a new share issue on that basis requires a vetting period, the making up of a prospectus, the setting down of terms and it will cost £500,000 or thereabouts. In the meantime, nothing will change either on the pitch or in terms of the position this club finds itself in.
All that’s happened here is that a new group of shareholders has emerged to challenge the existing ones. That is a recipe for more internecine warfare, whilst the team on the pitch dies a death.
The importance of a unified boardroom at Ibrox is critical. Even if they raise the £6 million they say they need, that will get them through until season ticket renewal time at most. But then what? If they are still stuck in the Championship – as I expect them to be – there’ll be demands that they strengthen the playing squad. A large number of its players are out of contract in the summer, meaning even more money has to be found.
This is a club who doesn’t even have certainty over the manager.
McCoist is hanging about like a bad smell, raking in a tidy penny, and his cohort of backroom staff remain firmly entrenched. The task of bringing in a new manager can’t even begin until that has been resolved … and then what? He inherits a skeleton of a squad, no money to buy replacements and no scouting system to identify targets even if the cash to bring them in was there.
Even getting this club up to something approaching par is a Herculean task which is going to cost someone the fat end of £30 million or more … and it’ll take years.
Not a single individual in this saga so far – not even those, like Ashely, for whom that kind of money would be chump change – has shown the slightest inclination to spend anything like that, and the Sevco support wouldn’t play the long game even if they did.
In real terms then, today’s events change nothing at all. A group of shareholders who remained mostly anonymous have been replaced by a rabble rousing bunch who the press are already treating as insurgents, as if what Sevco needs at the moment is a fresh insurgency.
The club ends the year skint and dependent on short-term loans from Ashley, as it would have ended like this had the share trading of today never happened. What makes it different of course is that if Ashley feels he is being squeezed out of the picture he can turn off the taps and consign the club to the dustbin of history with the OldCo.
If he feels, for one second, that his own influence at Ibrox is under threat I fully expect him to fight to protect his interests.
Ironically, it may just be that someone like Ashley, long term, is actually just what Sevco needs, as today’s sale of Lewis McLeod shows. Along with sending McCoist to trim the hedges, and demoting his backroom buddies and installing McDowell as interim boss, Ashley and Llambias have taken the sort of steps that ought to have been taken right at the start. They’ve shown some kind of sense about what this club requires if it’s to survive. They are fully entitled to be compensated for that effort, and only an ingrate would challenge that assertion. If the man’s money was keeping the lights on in my house, I would think twice before I crossed the street to piss on his cornflakes.
The last thing Sevco needs are “Rangers men” cut from the cloth of old, chasing the dream, trying to pretend nothing has changed.
Everything has changed. The next 12 months will be even more tumultuous than the last 12. Aside from the boardroom bloodletting that is inevitable, we’re going to see the start of the legal processes which will unravel the truth about the Whyte takeover of Rangers and Green’s creation of Sevco.
We’re probably going to get a “warts and all” expose on the whole thing, including who knew what, and when, at the SFA.
This has been one Hell of a year to be a football fan in Scotland. The national team has started to play real football again under Gordon Strachan, and a little bit of pride has been restored. Cups and trophies were evenly spread out amongst the teams, with no one side dominating as many had predicted, and season ticket sales were up almost everywhere, with the two big exceptions being in Glasgow, albeit for very different reasons.
I want to sign off for this year saying that 2014 was the year On Fields of Green really found its feet. There have been more than 100 articles, we’ve launched a magazine (issue 3 is just about finished, the delay has been in trying to decide what we want to do with the project long-term) and the guys who keep it running with me have been debating podcasts and other stuff, which we’ll see about as time marches on.
One thing is clear; without your support, your sharing of articles, your comments, your criticisms (which all help us make it better), your advice and those occasional gold nuggets of information which help clarify and crystallise the muddy waters around us … and of course everyone who donated something, love and respect to every single one of you … this website purely and simply would not exist at all.
In the coming year, we aim to write more and to do more to involve ourselves with the battle for the soul of Scottish football, a battle we’re not in the least complacent about. There’s a hell of a lot to be done.
This year will be vital to the game’s long term prosperity. Before 2015 ends, we might see financial fair play in our leagues. We might see an SFA President who’s not cut from the same old cloth. We might yet see more changes in European football and, by God, even our national team making a real push for qualification to a major finals.
All things are possible. Believing is the first step to achieving.
Happy New Year comrades, friends, ladies and gentleman.
Faith, Truth and Justice.
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