When it comes to political intrigue and in-fighting, Scottish football is so very often in a league of its own.
But even for those of us long accustomed to the rancorous disputes which have regularly bedevilled the national sport at executive and boardroom level down the years, the mayhem unleashed by the Scottish Professional Football League’s resolution aimed at ending season 2019-20 has been bewildering to behold.
The claims and counter-claims of the parties involved over the past few days have sparked and fuelled a fresh batch of conspiracy theories among those who are perfectly willing to buy into the kind of agenda-driven narrative which Scottish football has turned into an art form.
It seems even more unedifying than ever, given it is set against the current backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis which has raised such serious doubts over the financial viability of so many of the SPFL’s 42 member clubs.
The row over Dundee’s vote which never was (or was it?) has brought new key figures into the spotlight as the SPFL attempts to find a way forward. Ahead of today’s emergency board meeting, we profile some of those who have now emerged as key players in this latest political drama.
Since his appointment as chairman of the Scottish Professional Football League in the summer of 2017, MacLennan has largely been conspicuous only by his lengthy periods of silence.
The 71-year-old media executive has appeared content to remain extremely low profile in the role, certainly in comparison to his predecessors Ralph Topping and Lex Gold who adopted a more hands-on and publicly visible approach. That all changed over the past few days as MacLennan put his name to the SPFL’s robust rejection of calls from Rangers for an independent inquiry into the voting process and the suspension of SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster and legal counsel Rod McKenzie.
It’s not the first time Glasgow-born MacLennan, a former managing director of Associated Newspapers and chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, has crossed swords with Rangers. The Ibrox club previously called for his suspension as SPFL chairman in 2018, citing what they claimed had been undisclosed business links between MacLennan, as non-executive chairman of Independent News and Media, and Celtic’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond who held a major stake in the Dublin-based company.
Ever since the inception of the Scottish Premier League back in 1998, McKenzie has been an integral figure in and around the boardroom table of the governing body.
It was with Harper Macleod, the leading Scottish law firm of which he was a co-founder in 1988, that McKenzie initially provided legal advice to the SPL following the top flight clubs’ breakaway from the Scottish Football League. From 2002, he alone became the SPL’s principal lawyer.
McKenzie has subsequently advised a succession of chief executives, chairmen and board members of the SPL through major issues such as the collapse of the Setanta TV deal in 2009, the fall-out from Rangers’ insolvency in 2012 and the merger with the SFL to form the SPFL in 2013.
Having retired from Harper Macleod, McKenzie was appointed as the in-house legal counsel for the SPFL in January 2018. Twice named Scottish Solicitor of the Year, he also serves on Scottish Rugby’s disciplinary panel.
McKenzie now finds himself in the cross hairs of Rangers after he ruled that the alternative resolution they submitted ahead of last Friday’s vote was not competent.
Perhaps not since Maurice Johnston joined Rangers has a signature in Scottish football caused as much of a stooshie as the one John Nelms flourished on Dundee’s now notorious voting slip last Friday. The managing director of the Dens Park club is now being painted as the man with the fate of the SPFL and many of its other 41 members in his sole control.
Nelms, from Austin in Texas, has been running the show at Dundee since 2013 when his business colleague Tim Keyes bought the club through their Keyes Capital investment company. Having previously spent two years of his childhood in Scotland, when his his father worked at Faslane Naval Base and the family was based at Rhu, Nelms later returned to the country to play a trial match for East Fife, after being spotted playing by the Fife-based father of a fellow student at university in Chicago.
His tenure at Dundee has been turbulent, with one promotion and one relegation. Nelms was a director on the SPFL board from 2018 to 2019 and his phone is sure to have been red hot with calls from the current incumbents over the past five days.
It was just three days after the SPFL’s initial decision to suspend football on 13 March that Rangers managing director Stewart Robertson moved to make clear the Ibrox club’s position on how the outcome of the 2019-20 season should be determined.
A mild-mannered and measured individual in the experience of anyone who has met him since his first involvement in football as a Motherwell director back in 2002, Robertson struck a more strident and robust tone when he declared that final league standings could only be declared when all 38 games are played. “Any attempt to finish the season with a significant amount of games still to play, impacts upon the integrity of sport in Scotland,” said Robertson at the time.
The 54-year-old, currently a member of the SPFL board who have rejected his stance, remains determined to derail the current resolution before clubs and have an alternative adopted.
If Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell possessed even half of the Machiavellian skills he is credited with on the lunatic fringes of Scottish football’s social media, the decision-making processes of both the SPFL and Scottish FA would be completely under his spell.
The reality is that Lawwell is no more or no less than a highly skilled administrator and CEO who looks after the strategic interests of his club with relentless resolve and acumen. Celtic’s success on the pitch and balance sheet off it are testament to his success.
While no longer a member of the SPFL board, Lawwell will inevitably be a key player in the myriad discussions which take place between clubs and the governing bodies in the current crisis. He outlined Celtic’s position in public on 19 March, stressing a preference for the season to be completed if possible but for ‘a fair and reasonable solution’ if not.
With the Scottish champions 13 points ahead of Rangers at the top of the Premiership when football was suspended, Lawwell would not surprisingly expect that solution to see Celtic’s ninth consecutive title confirmed.