There is something very odd and obscure in Scottish football’s accounts

By Tony Attwood

Under UK law organisations that handle money have to have accounts, and those accounts have to be tied up once a year, and passed to Revenue and Customs, who, if they feel a bit uppity, can ask all sorts of questions.

If everything is felt to be fine, then either tax is paid by the organisation to the state, or if there is no profit, nothing is paid.  Sometimes the organisation might even get a refund if it has overpaid tax in the past.

All nice and straightforward.  Except that occasionally something slightly weird is tucked away in the accounts, and it lies there as a little secret, until someone asks a question.

But the years go by, people forget what they are supposed to say to hide the old hidden away oddity, and they come out with something odd.  Something that doesn’t quite tie up with what is in the accounts.

And this is what is happening in Scottish football at the moment, and is causing a whole array of bits and pieces to unravel.   Because top football people in Scotland are saying that the Premier League there can’t loan money to struggling clubs, because last time they did this they never got their money back when the club went into liquidation.

Now that last time was Gretna who rose from nowhere to win the 3rd, 2nd and 1st divisions of Scottish football three years running, did one season in the Premier League and went bust.

Most of the Premier League in Scotland have recently said that with this year’s shut down, they wanted to end the season and distribute money so that no clubs went out of business.

But Rangers and a few others argued against this.  Meanwhile some have suggested the Premier League clubs could loan money to lower league clubs to help them out.  But the Prem’s chief exec and its chairman said that the Gretna experience means that they can’t loan money again because they won’t get it back.

Yet the accounts of the Premier League show that no loan was ever made to Gretna.  Gretna is seems asked for it, but the accounts show it was never paid.  The administrators’ trading account shows “funds advanced from SPL” as £572,532 to Gretna, but that was money they were owed from playing in the league, money that was already theirs.

But the chairman of the Scottish Premier League is certain, saying, “Previously, a loan had been made to Gretna to enable it to complete its SPL fixtures at the end of a season. The club was ultimately liquidated, the loan was never fully repaid and all of the other clubs lost fee payments as a result. This demonstrates the fundamental problems with loans to clubs.”

And this is not a matter of playing with words for this accusation is being made to justify the Premier League clubs (where of course all the money is) not helping the lower leagues.

The imbalance of the Scottish League is shown by its attendance figures.  In this season (not yet finished) shows Celtic with an average attendance of 57,944, Rangers with 49,238 and Hearts with 16,751 as the top three clubs.

In the Championship the top two are Dundee United with 8496 and Dundee with 5277.  In League One it is Falkirk at the top with 3713 and Raith second with 1839.

In League Two no team has an average gate of over 800.  The top club is Cove Rangers who came into the league for the first time this year and have an attendance of 765 on average.

So the difference across the clubs is incredible, and if the leagues want to continue to exist it is obvious that some solidarity payments need to be paid from the best-supported clubs to others.

Last Saturday the chief executive of the Scottish Premier League said on BBC Radio Scotland: “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.”

A high moral ground indeed, echoing words previously said – rather closely echoing in fact, and yet seemingly totally untrue.  And as everyone who likes the high moral ground should know, “make sure you’ve got your facts right before uttering a word” otherwise you look like a bit of a prat.

When the League was asked about the “loan” a spokesperson said, “The additional funding made available to the administrator of Gretna FC was not separately identified in the SPL accounts. The total funding, in excess of fees due to Gretna FC for 2007-08, was £398,000, which was the amount of reduced income for all other SPL clubs the following season.”   But the 2008/9 accounts, checked by the Guardian (for which I am grateful because it would be a pain to do it) don’t show any reduced income being available to clubs because of Gretna.  Nor does it show that the clubs received £398,000 than they should have done.

As the Guardian says, “The SPFL has denied any wrongdoing.”

But what they don’t ask is the all-important “why?” question – because journalists are trained never to ask “why?”

Why make up a story about Gretna getting a loan, and then all the other clubs not getting their fair share of the year’s money because Gretna went bust?

People lie for many reasons.  One because lying helps another argument, in this case arguing against the big clubs helping the little clubs.  Another reason is to deflect attention from another issue.  Another is simply because some people believe that they are so important everyone will accept their every word.

For myself, I suspect there is something very odd going on in Scottish football.  Rangers have 9 games to play and are 13 points behind Celtic who have eight to play.  So yes Rangers could win the league, and could get 94 points.  But equally Celtic six wins would give Celtic the title, even if Rangers did win every match.

It’s all a bit odd, and if I had to place a bet, I’d suggest something odd is emerging about the year that Gretna went bust.  But I’m English so what do I know?