SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster was interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound on Saturday by Richard Gordon. Here is that interview in full…
What is your response to Tom English’s story about loan payments?
“Quite simply, Ann [Budge] is mistaken. No loan was approved while Ann was on the board of the SPFL.
“What had actually happened was, in 2016, when Rangers returned to the Scottish Premiership all non-Old Firm clubs budgeted to get three Old Firm games prior to the split. Because of a fixture anomaly with Rangers returning, three clubs actually lost out. So Partick Thistle, Hamilton and Motherwell were all given two Old Firm games pre-split rather than the three that they had budgeted for.
“The board was very sympathetic to the situation they found themselves in and decided in the case of Partick Thistle and Motherwell – Hamilton didn’t want to take an earlier fee payment – that those two clubs would be entitled to invoice them for £150,000 each, which they got earlier than other clubs.
“At the same time, Celtic actually agreed to forego £300,000 of fees that they would have received at that time. So there was no cash-flow impact from the league for the other 39 clubs at that time.
“There’s a big difference between loans and fee payments. There is a real difference. It’s important to make the distinction.”
You’re calling them fee payments, but the report calls them advances…
“They were advanced fee payments. They were subject to VAT. Loans are not subject to VAT. Those advanced payments were invoiced by the clubs. Loans are not invoice-able and by their very definition are to be repaid. These advance payments were not. They were not loans. Whatever people may wish to think, they were not loans.
“When Murdoch McLennan made it clear earlier in the week that the last loan that had been made was way back and talked about the club that gave a personal guarantee in the time of the SPL and we talk about the loan that had been made to Gretna, that loan to Gretna was made purely to enable that club to complete its fixtures before the end of the season.
“That’s the fundamental problem with loans. In the case of Gretna, they did complete the season but they went bust and were not able to repay the amount. So all the other clubs in the league carried the can and were liable for the loss due to Gretna defaulting on the loan repayments.
“So there is a big distinction between fee payments and loans. That is the distinction. Did the SPFL make loans in season 2016/17? It did not. That’s unequivocally the case.
“The second question, which is probably the more important question, is could the board have made millions of pounds of loans to clubs in April as an alternative to the resolution put forward?
In principle, the board could have made individual loans to individual clubs if it was convinced that it was in the best interest of the league overall to do so and that each club we were lending money to would have been a good credit risk. To have done that 42 times in short order would have been impossible.
“But being frank, given the financial crisis that the game is in it’s absolutely impossible to see how the board could have satisfied itself that all 42 clubs would have been a good credit risk. Clubs defaulting on their loan repayments would have left other clubs liable.
“It’s absolutely the case that there was no practical or realistic alternative to the board’s resolution. This is the crucial point: No other club since that resolution was put out several weeks ago – which was approved by over 80% of clubs – has come up with an alternative way of doing what the board was trying to do.”
Have the rules changed in terms of letting fee payments being made in advance?
“I don’t think they have changed substantially. It may be that the profile of fee payments that have been made since that time may have changed somewhat.
“So what happens – and I apologise for the slightly technical nature of this – but clubs lend us things like ad boards, broadcasting rights, etc and license those things to the league, the league bundles those properties together and goes out and sells them as sponsorships.
“In return for lending us those, the clubs get fee payments from the league. So that is invoice-able. The clubs invoice us for the material that they’re providing to the league and the league makes payments to those clubs and it makes payments entirely on the league position of all those clubs.
“So by the end of March this year, the league had already paid out the bulk of what was going to earned by every bottom club in every division of the league. So the idea that the league could have somehow made further advance payments is not real. The league had already paid out by the end of March the bulk of what was going to be due to the bottom club in each division. And 100% of the fee payments that clubs are entitled to are based on league position.
“So it’s absolutely the case that for the board to draw a line under the season and give clarity and certainty to the lower-league clubs it was partly about money – about getting fee payments out to those clubs as soon as possible – but it was also very much about creating certainty and clarity for those clubs so they can plan, turn off their expenditures, deal with player contracts and they can put themselves in the best possible situation to deal with the financial storm that everyone is going through at the moment.”
If rules haven’t changed since early payments were made to Thistle and Motherwell, why haven’t you done the same with end-of-season payments this season?
“We did and we’ve done that every year that the league has been in existence. So the league makes advanced fee payments to clubs and does so in August each year – that’s the early payment that’s made to clubs – again in January, again in March, again in April and then at the end of the league season.”
But there’s still a significant sum of money sitting in that SPFL bank account that is still to be paid out at the end of the season?
“Not to the lower three divisions, no. Before the resolution went out there was roughly £9m which was due to be paid as fee payments to the clubs in the SPFL. So roughly £7m to the top division, roughly £2m to the lower three divisions. It was the resolution that freed up that money that got it paid to those clubs.
“The key point is that at the point that that resolution was passed, the money was then able to be paid out to those clubs as fee payments. The bottom club in each divisions didn’t actually get much money at all because it had already received the vast majority of what it was already due that season. So that money was paid out in March.”
Were clubs told in the build-up to the resolution that there was no other viable way for the league to pay out that money?
“There would have been one alternative which would have been to change the articles of the company and to have equal fee payments to all clubs in each division.”
Wouldn’t another alternative been to make those advance payments?
“You couldn’t make any further advance payments because you didn’t know where each club was going to end the season until a line is drawn under the season.”
You would have known within a position or two. You could have given 75% of those payments?
“Then you would have been in a position where clubs would have had to repay money to the league. A situation where clubs would have perhaps been defaulting on money back to the league. So people trying to convince you that loans were viable or realistic and that the league could have somehow done that without carrying out due diligence on those clubs is just not realistic.
“What was realistic and what was practical was what the board did and what was approved by over 80% of the clubs.
“It’s really unhelpful that people are trying to suggest that things were done in an underhand way. That’s just simply not the case. You’ve got clubs on the board of the league who are representing all clubs and they did what they believe – and I absolutely believe – was in the best interest of the league overall and the 42 clubs overall. Over 80% of the clubs agree with that and back the resolution.”
“There were genuine conversations going on that if a line wasn’t drawn under the league season then the season should be voided. And if the league season was voided then there are no league positions, there’s no entitlement to fee payments at that point and that was a discussion that was being held around the leagues at that time.
“So it was absolutely the case that the league was only in a position to make those fee payments that it did to clubs on the back of the resolution.”
But there was no appetite for the season to be voided as such. That was never going to be a likely outcome?
“We made it very clear what the consequences of that would be. It was hugely problematic and it would have exposed both the league and all of the clubs within the league to hugely problematic legal claims for a season that had never happened.
“But the other point is that the entitlement to fees would also not have happened. You wouldn’t have had an entitlement to fees because fee entitlement, as per the rules of the leagues, is based on league position. And we would have been in a right mess had there been a decision to void the season because there would have been no entitlement. And a number of clubs were saying ‘if a line isn’t drawn under the season then we want an equal share within each division’.”
So clubs didn’t vote to void the season because they wouldn’t get payments?
“Then you come back to the point that it has to be based on league position. And until the point in which you agree on what the league position is by either curtailing the season or have the season played out – and we have to remember that this weekend now would have been the final day in the Championship, League One and League Two – it simply wasn’t the case that the seasons games in the lower divisions could be completed.
When Rangers’ resolution was rejected, were they advising advances rather than loans?
“It was deemed ineffective. Not by Rod McKenzie, who is the SPFL’s legal adviser, but we took it to a QC and they were very clear that the resolution that was put forward was not effective. You cannot force the board of a company to do something like make loans were it would have been potentially not in the best interest of the company to do so.
“At no point did we get an effective resolution from a club that we could circulate and we made it very clear that if any club wishes to produce a resolution then we would work with them to try and make it effective. But you can’t try and force the board of a league to make loans by way of this sort of resolution. It was not effective.”
Were you genuinely open to working with Rangers at that stage?
“Absolutely. And that was made very clear at a board discussion that we were very open to working with Rangers and any other club that wanted to put forward a working resolution. That remains the case.
“We’ve had all sorts of rumour and innuendo, vague allegations but nothing specific. It has now been several weeks since me and Rod McKenzie met with calls for us to be suspended and we’ve had absolutely no idea what it was that we were supposed to have done wrong. Nothing has come forward. It’s not even a question of evidence. We haven’t seen any alleged evidence. We don’t even know what the charges are.
“It’s just not the way to behave and it’s extremely disappointing and very divisive. We all need to work together to tackle this enormous crisis that is threatening the sport in this country and this on-going in-fighting is simply using up man hours and preventing us from doing what we all want to do. We want to protect the game that we all love. We want to work together. We want to sort this out and get games played as soon as we safely can. This ongoing in-fighting is doing nothing other than stopping us from doing that.”
Have you been given any indication from privy members what kind of evidence they may have?
“I’ve got no idea. But you have to bear in mind that you don’t call for the chief executive of an organisation and their chief legal adviser to be suspended unless, I’m assuming, you have something that is pretty powerful. We haven’t got a clue what that is. We’ve been given no indication as to what it is that we’ve done wrong.
“I’m hearing that this alleged dossier of evidence is due to be circulated this week. We look forward to seeing what’s in it. The sooner we can get this dealt with and move on and actually work for the good of the game going forward together the better.
“If anyone feels they’ve been bullied by me or Ian Blair or Rod McKenzie or any other member of the SPFL staff they should have the courage to come forward and actually say so. What it was that was said, by whom and when they consider to be bullying. Because I have absolute faith, integrity and good behaviour of my staff. I do not believe for a moment that anyone has been bullied by a member of the SPFL staff. Least of all myself.
“It’s extremely disappointing that these vague allegations are out there with no one actually coming forward and saying ‘I was bullied by someone within the SPFL staff’.”
So your conscience is clear and you have nothing to worry about with the EGM on the 12 May?
“No, I’m entirely mystified like many others by what it is that me and Rod McKenzie are alleged to have done wrong. We’re all just doing our absolute best to serve the clubs, as are the board members who sit alongside me. They’ve been doing it for no money and they sit there and use a huge amount of time and effort spent.
“A huge amount of man hours went in to considering hundreds of pages of material that the board had to consider before the resolution was circulated and they did that to help clubs. They are appointed by the clubs, they represent the clubs and they came forward with what they believe and continue to believe was in the best interest of the league and clubs overall.”
So you’ve got nothing to fear from an independent inquiry and to let everything play out in the open?
“We’ve had an independent inquiry already. As soon as the Easter weekend was out of the way we had some suggestions of improper conduct in relation to the Dundee FC return, so Murdoch MacLennan and Karyn McCluskey – the independent directors on the board – put in place an independent forensic examination that was carried out by Deloitte. A global consultancy.
“They went through telephone records, they went through emails and texts of all SPFL staff who were involved in the whole return process. We were interviewed by Deloitte and at the end of it all they found absolutely no evidence of any improper conduct by any member of the SPFL staff in relation to that SPFL return. So we’ve seen calls for me and Rod to be suspended and we have no idea what that’s based on.”
But the investigation didn’t look into whether there was any bullying or coercion?
“If people believe that they’ve been bullied by me, Rod or any SPFL staff they should come forward, speak to the chairman and say so.”
Has anyone come forward or suggested that?
“No one has suggested to the chairman, as far as I’m concerned, that I bullied anyone or Rod McKenzie. If they have an allegation they have a duty to come forward and speak to Murdoch or Karyn McCluskey and get it dealt with. And they will deal with it properly, look very carefully into any allegation of bullying as one should. To date we have no idea why it is that Rod have been asked to be suspended.”
So there’s absolutely no way the SPFL could have made payments of 75-80% of the payments that would have been made at the end of the season?
“The board had a huge amount of material to look in to to decide what was to be done for the best of all the clubs. It was clear that the amount of money that we wanted to pay out to the clubs – which was the end of season payments – the only viable, realistic way that those payments could be made was as fee payments once the line had been drawn under the league season.
“It’s for that reason that we’ve yet to be be able to further fee payments to clubs in the Ladbrokes Premiership because those games are simply postponed at the moment. Whereas the games in the lower three divisions are cancelled because season because the season has been curtailed.”
How much is still sitting there to be paid out to the Premiership clubs?
“It’s around £7m gross. Which will be paid out to the 12 Premiership clubs at the point when the season comes to an end.”
And there’s no way you could make advanced payments of 75-80% of that remaining money to Premiership clubs?
“Since the end of March, we’ve effectively paid out in full from position six and position 12 in the Premiership. Any further amounts that you make available to those clubs you stand the very real risk, if games are then played, that clubs move places and then end up owing you money.”
Since the league was suspended have any clubs asked for an advance or a loan?
“Two clubs informally asked for a loan. That was in the lower leagues and prior to the resolution being passed. Both clubs have withdrawn those requests.”
Under what circumstances?
“On the basis that the fee payments have now been made.”
Understandably you want certainty…
“The clubs wanted certainty. They had huge outgoings which they needed to deal with in order to survive the crisis that has been caused by Covid-19 over the summer. No one knows if we’re going to be playing games again. We want to get back as soon as possible to get back playing games safely. But no one knows when that is going to be.
“As much as lower-league clubs needed fee payments, they needed the clarity and certainty as to what was going on with season 19/20 so they can make the very difficult decisions, including player contracts, in order to get them through the summer.”
The meeting between Premiership clubs. Shouldn’t it have been the SPFL’s job to call that?
“We do have regular meetings with clubs. Sometimes clubs like to meet informally without the members of the SPFL executive there. We’ve got no problem with that. That’s pretty commonplace. That’s not at all out of the ordinary and I think it’s very healthy that clubs are discussing things that are important to them.
“Clearly there are a number of important issues that were discussed yesterday. League reconstruction being chief amongst them and potentially drawing a line under season 19/20. These are real issues that the owners and chairmen of clubs need to discuss and I’m entirely relaxed. I think it’s very healthy that those conversations take place as often as possible.”
Is it at all likely that the 2019/20 season will be completed?
“It’s extremely difficult. That’s very clear. Decisions in Holland and Belgium and now in France, where the line has been drawn under the league, suggests it’s clearly going to be very difficult.
“We all want to play the remaining games in 19/20. I think that’s absolutely clear. We’ve seen the efforts that are being made, particularly in England and Germany, to get games underway behind closed doors. I think we absolutely have to be open-minded to any series of rules that get games underway safely and as soon as possible.
“I do think we’re in a slightly different place for all number of reasons than England and Germany. Not least of all the proportion of money that comes through the gates rather than through broadcast revenues. So everyone wants there to be fans back inside the stadia as soon as possible.
“That said, I think it’s really important that we work with the Scottish government and we find and agree a route map back to normality and we’re very much looking forward to meeting with the sports minister Joe Fitzpatrick this Tuesday, alongside the Scottish FA, the SRU, Sportscotland and Scottish Racing, where we’ll start the process of creating that route map back to normality.”
All the money has been received from BT Sports and Sky Sports this season?
And am I right in saying if the season is not completed no money would have to go back to the broadcasters?
“I’m not going to be in a position to comment on the individual deals. I’m sure you wouldn’t expect me to. We will have to have some frank conversations with all of our partners as will clubs.
“No one wants to be in a position where games can’t be played. We’re in a situation where in the lower leagues the season has been curtailed and in the Premiership where it may yet be curtailed. And if that’s the case then there will be lots of conversations and that will be with individual sponsors and clubs involved. And in the league’s case with broadcasters and partners involved.
“But what I can’t do and what you wouldn’t expect me to is to have those discussions live on air. We have to have the space to have those discussions with our partners, who are very much looking forward to a new set of rights with Sky Sports exclusively live from this summer for five years, in the Betfred Cup with Premier Sports from this summer and of course, with the BBC, a five-year deal. So we’ve got those deals in place and we’re very much looking forward to starting them as soon as football can return.”
So surely you want to get the next season started as soon as possible so you don’t get hit with a financial penalty from Sky Sports for not having a full season to offer them?
“Well, no one knows when we’ll be getting games back played safely at the moment. We all want that to happen as soon as possible. What we do know is that we have the Euros which are coming next June rather than this summer and in June 2021 the season will have to be over.
“So we know how much fixture congestion there is in Scotland at the best of times, these are hardly the best of times and any delay to the start of season 20/21 will make things even more problematic. And that’s before you’ve even considered other games like the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup and the final that are still to be played this summer.
“So there is a whole lot of fixture problems that we’re going to have to confront and we’ll have to work with our partners to work through them.”
You need to offer Sky Sports a full season don’t you?
“We need to get playing football as soon as is safely possible. And that’s the case for the broadcasters. That’s the case for the sponsors. For all the clubs and their various sponsors. The longer this goes on the more economic damage is being wreaked on Scottish clubs. That is unavoidable at the moment because we’re all in lockdown, we all understand why that needs to be the case, but as soon as it’s safely possible to return to playing games we need to do so.”
To confirm, there is no way you could make advance payments ahead of the vote and there was no bullying or coercion to clubs to vote in favour of that resolution?
“My conscience is clear. I have a small team of staff at the SPFL. We’re all working incredibly hard to do our very best by all 42 clubs. The board of directors of the SPFL put forward a solution that they believed and I believe to be in the very best interest of Scottish football as a whole and certainly in the best interest of the 42 clubs. I don’t believe that any member of the SPFL staff has bullied anyone.”