Football is nothing without fans.
This is one of the most tiresome phrases that we have heard since lockdown hit the UK in March. It is up there with “the new normal” and “these are unprecedented times”, as a truly used-to-death phrase. It is tiresome because it feels like everyone, absolutely everyone, has uttered this phrase in the past few months, be it in regards to not getting to go to their team’s stadium, or not enjoying the lack of genuine atmosphere whilst watching the TV games. For a few fan groups in Scotland, the phrase “football is nothing without fans” has taken on a new dimension in recent weeks.
Three teams – Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers – have all been drawn into a lengthy legal dispute over their promotions over the lockdown period. The SPFL took the tough decision to call a halt to all divisions in Scottish football in May 2020, meaning that Celtic, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers were all awarded their league titles, the latter three earning promotion to a higher division.
These promotions have brought about a problem – a subsequent relegation needed to follow suit. Hearts and Partick Thistle were the two teams demoted as a result of this; a decision which has led to a feeling of unrest and unease to many.
There are, of course, two sides to this story. On the one hand, Hearts and Partick were bottom of the league with very few games left to play. Had they simply won more games then those particular clubs would not be in this position. On the other hand, both mathematically had the chance to stay up, Partick in particular who had a game in hand over their relegation rivals.
The logical way to proceed would have been to increase the size of the divisions, allowing the deserving champions their rightful promotion and saving the last-placed teams a costly relegation. Unfortunately, as is the way with the SPFL, logic failed to hold. Instead of taking the strong stance to commission this, it was put to a league member vote, in which each team voted for their own selfish reasons.
Hearts and Partick, so outraged by the decision to relegate them, took the issue out of a sporting panel and on to a court of law. With such great implications for the three promoted sides, a legal battle ensued, essentially forcing the promoted sides to seek legal counsel. This is an extremely costly endeavour, particularly when the three promoted sides have done nothing wrong. It was announced that the cost would be in the region of £50,000, which could potentially rise to in excess of £150,000.
The initial response from the three clubs was a plea to the rest of the clubs in the SPFL, asking for a small handout from each one to help cover the cost of this ludicrous court case. The answer was a resounding no, with each club understandably acting in a selfish manner. While the three clubs licked their wounds, some fans put their heads together. They wouldn’t be able to come up with 150K, but they could raise some funds. Every little helps…
Each club had a set of fans who jumped to action. Dundee United fans Paul McNicoll and Andy Crichton got the ball rolling with their idea: a sponsored walk from Tynecastle – the home stadium of Hearts, the villains of this particular story – to Tannadice, the ground of their beloved Dundee United. In the following days, the popularity of this rose. The two men had set themselves the target of raising one thousand pounds to help their club out. At the time of writing, they have amassed over £35,000.
The idea inspired fans from the other clubs to commit to a similar idea. Raith Rovers, based in Kirkcaldy, Fife, had set up a campaign allowing a group of hardy volunteers to join their sporting director Andy Mill on the walk from Starks Park to Tannadice. Unfortunately this idea has been abandoned due to police intervention. Crucially, however, they are still raising funds to help the cause.
Meanwhile, Cove Rangers, who won League 2 in their first ever attempt, earning promotion to the professional tier of Scottish football in May 2019, have committed three men to an extremely testing walk. Former players Mark Perry and Roy McBain, along with super fan Ian Yule, have made the bold decision to walk from Aberdeenshire to Tannadice Park, a mammoth trek of 63 miles.
All three walks are to finish at Tannadice Park on Saturday, July 18th, with a special socially distanced event put on to thank those that are giving up their time and energy for the good of sporting justice and integrity.
I spoke to some of those involved in the walk. First up was Paul McNicoll, co-host of popular Dundee United podcast ‘The Dode Fox Podcast’.
How did the idea of the sponsored walk occur to yourself and Andy?
“The idea came about late last Monday evening (6 July) when Andy messaged me and said that he’d be up for doing a walk of sorts so that there was a focal point to raise money for the club, rather than the club simply asking for people to part with their hard earned for no other reason than the goodwill and kindness of their own hearts.
I said that I’d be up for that and then I suggested Tynecastle. We initially thought about doing it over two days, but didn’t feel that that would be deemed all that impressive, or worthy of people ‘sponsoring’ us to do it, so we changed it to doing the whole walk in a oner.”
You set a target of a grand, and currently have raised 36K… what words do you have to all of those that have donated?
“Andy and myself are not the ones that deserve the praise, or thanks for this campaign being so successful… the fans that have put their hands in their own pockets and donated in large numbers are the true stars of this show. People have just forked out for season tickets, Championship winning t-shirts, cardboard cut-out pictures for the games that will be behind closed doors and the new strip is due to come out the day before we do the walk.
Money is tight for a lot of people but the generosity of so many has shown to myself, and hopefully the owner of the club, just how much people love this club. It must be said though, fans of a number of different clubs have donated to this campaign.”
While it is an incredible effort that you and Andy have raised so much, how does it feel knowing that United, Raith and Cove are being forced to shell out a sum that could rise to £150K?
“It doesn’t seem fair that United, Raith and Cove are having to go through this whole process, let alone potentially pick up a rather expensive tab at the end of it all. These 3 teams have done nothing other than be the best teams in their respective leagues when the season was called. Votes have been taken, reconstruction plans have been put forward, and knocked back, and we now find the Scottish game in a state of disarray due to this issue dragging on. It’s all a bit of a shambles and is quite clearly the main driver for why Andy and myself wanted to do something positive for Dundee United.
Whatever the fans can raise through this campaign to help the club pay any potential legal bill at the end of this, will hopefully make a real difference to the club and help them, financially, at a very difficult time. This whole episode has proven to be very divisive in the Scottish game so to see so many people back this campaign, and the ones of Raith and Cove, is heartwarming.”
I also spoke to Paul’s walking buddy, Andy Crichton, a lifelong United fan and season ticket holder for the last 20 years.
The initial target on your Just Giving page was £1000. How did it feel to see this target smashed in just a matter of hours?
“We discussed how much to set and actually thought of £500, as we didn’t know how the fans would see it… to see the total rise was just surreal and humbling”
Do you think a promotion-relegation system was fair, or should the league have used this as a chance to re-brand and reconstruct?
“I do not think we should be here at all. Reconstruction would have solved everyone’s problems… This could have been a fresh start.”
Finally, I spoke with Andy Mill, Supporter Director at Raith Rovers, on his thoughts on the matter.
How would you encourage someone to donate to this cause who isn’t instantly familiar with the situation?
“There has been much coverage in the newspapers and on social media on this subject. I would encourage any fair-minded person to look at the facts and decide which side is right. The large wealthy club Heart of Midlothian, who decided to take legal action to reverse a democratic decision, or Raith Rovers who, if this goes against them, will be penalised for being promoted.”
How detrimental to Raith would it be to have promotion pulled away from them, if the court case goes against the promoted sides?
“Raith Rovers have spent a considerable amount of money preparing for life in the Championship. A new electronic ticketing system is being installed in addition to upgrading our CCTV system. Old seating is being replaced and money has been spent on improved catering facilities. Our biggest loss of income will be from reduced away support. Playing in the Championship against Hearts, Dundee and Dunfermline etc will give us a greater income.”
How could the SPFL have dealt with this situation differently, to save such a dark cloud (and huge financial cost), blighting the off-season?
“It’s difficult to see what the SPFL could have done to prevent Hearts taking this course of action once the season was deemed to be over by the majority of member clubs. If the SPL clubs hadn’t shied away from discussing league reconstruction for so long the outcome might be different. That discussion should still take place as there is an appetite for change at the lower levels. This should be a long term solution and not a short term fix to suit Hearts.”
Nobody from Cove Rangers was available to comment.
It is shameful that the season has culminated in this. The Covid situation was unthinkable and an incredibly hard process to navigate. However, the way in which the SPFL have governed this has been nothing short of shambolic. Clubs have lost thousands of pounds because of this and a sheer lack of thought has lost people jobs and cost teams and fans alike a whole lot of money.
It should not be down to the fans to help bail out teams in such circumstances, however, we are grateful to each and every fan that is fighting the good fight, the fight to see justice served to those teams that have earned their promotion and who don’t deserve to be dragged through the courts. Finances are tight in the lower leagues of Scottish football and fighting for their hard-earned place in higher divisions could have dire complications for these teams. To those fans that have gone over and above, we thank you. We cannot put into words how much your efforts are appreciated.
Times are tough right now, but if you can spare anything at all to the GoFundMe pages listed below then it would be greatly appreciated. Every little helps. The cost of a pint, or a pie at your local ground, could go a long way to helping out those teams who are struggling so greatly at this time.