WHEN the 12 SPL clubs turned the guns on themselves yesterday, they ensured the ammunition amounted to plastic bullets rather than the real thing.
At the third attempt to vote through new sanctions which would hopefully ensure "financial fair play", they introduced one unarguably tough new rule and a couple of raps on the knuckles, and hedged their bets on how to deal with a newco. There was enough for Neil Doncaster, the SPL chief executive, to champion a "bold and progressive" package of changes. Under scrutiny, though, the clubs did not quite commit to harming themselves too much if the day comes when their finances collapse.
The tough new rule is about what happens if a club goes into administration. Instead of being docked 10 points, a club will be now be docked 10 points or one-third of its previous season's final points total, whichever is the greater. If the rule had been in place in February, Rangers would have been docked 31 points, having finished the 2010-11 term with 93. "The sanctions for going into administration are as robust as anything south of the border, which is considered to be the highest standard of financial fair play," said Doncaster. "That unequivocally demonstrates how clear the clubs are that teams must live within their means. If they fail to do so they will be appropriately punished."
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Having failed to reach a decision on April 30 or May 7, yesterday's meeting was perceived to be "what do we do about Rangers". Prospective owner Charles Green accompanied Andrew Dickson, the club's director of administration, to the meeting but the answer they heard about dealing with a newco was an unequivocal: erm, let's wait and see.
What will happen to Rangers if their Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) proposal fails and they have to apply to enter the SPL as a newco? The clubs did not decide. A 10-point penalty for two seasons, and/or the loss of 75% of SPL income for three seasons, were both on the agenda but neither was approved. Instead, any newco application will be considered by all 12 clubs (it was decided it should no longer be done by only the six-man SPL board) if and when it arrives. The 12 will have the responsibility to approve or reject it, and the flexibility to impose specific sanctions.
Had they simply deferred the tough call and decided they would cross the bridge of a newco Rangers if they ever come to it? "I don't think that's fair," said Doncaster. "They have come up with a comprehensive set of proposals that deals with different circumstances. They have dealt with it [a newco scenario]. The clubs have taken the responsibility. Should there be any application in the future, the clubs will deal with it and sanction appropriately. It really is important to stress that we are not anticipating a newco. The CVA proposal has now been sent out to Rangers' creditors and we have no reason to believe that won't be accepted.
"If there is a newco, you can have two ways of dealing with it. One is to have flexibility, the other is to have fixed sanctions. The clubs have agreed that we will decide on a new application if it comes forward and impose sanctions depending on the circumstance. That is their view and one I respect as it is very sensible. The SPL have set out 18 wide-ranging sanctions and it is up to the clubs to decide what they see fit. What you want is proportionate sanctions which take account of all individual circumstances and, of course, they're all different."
Putting punishments at the discretion of the 12 clubs – rather than determining fixed sanctions – sounded ominously like the SPL could leave itself vulnerable to the sort of legal challenge Rangers raised at the Court of Session over the imposition of sanctions without jurisdiction. Doncaster did not see it that way. "Like any decision the SPL makes on a disciplinary matter it can always be appealed to the SFA," he said. "I don't believe that any sanction imposed by the SPL has ever been successfully appealed to the SFA so that should give some confidence."
Dealing with a newco was not the only matter deferred. There was postponement, too, of a decision to scrap the controversial requirement for an 11-1 majority in votes on financial issues. A proposal that all matters need only a minimum 9-3 majority will be decided upon at the annual general meeting on July 16. That is designed to remove the 11-1 majority requirement which effectively gives the Old Firm clubs the power of veto. Of course, it seems doomed. Because it would need an 11-1 majority to be changed, the Old Firm will surely strangle it at birth.
It sounded significant when it was revealed clubs would face a transfer embargo if they were late with PAYE and National Insurance contributions. But if those late payments are outside of a transfer window the punishment would be meaningless. And any embargo would be lifted as soon as the outstanding taxes were paid.
Similarly, any late payments to players – Hearts were serial offenders last season – will become a disciplinary matter. It will be the clubs' responsibility to report late payments to HMRC or their players, with further action taken if they fail to do so. Last season, the SPL was powerless to intervene at Hearts until the players submitted a formal complaint to PFA Scotland.
There was also significance for Hearts in one other tweak. From now on a club will be subject to sanctions if its parent company goes into administration. For example, Hearts, heavily indebted to Vladimir Romanov's UBIG bank, would now be docked points if the bank itself went into administration. "Where something is clearly a wholly owned or majority-owned subsidiary of a group, then it [administration] would clearly be relevant to the football club," said Doncaster.
At various points recently, the meeting had been billed as the most significant in Scottish football for years, or the day when the game might pull itself apart. Instead there were decisions, up to a point, but not the slightest hint of drama.