The SPL: Defenders of the faith or lacking perspective?

An SPL club struggling financially. A wealthy owner no longer backing them. Players unhappy over unpaid wages. Cutbacks desperately required. The very future of the club being called into question. Looking for a new buyer and fresh investment. Crippling debt.

Sound familiar? This certainly could be Hearts that I’m referring to, and it could be 2012. But it isn’t.

The year is 2008. The club is Gretna.

The SPL were forced to act on this occasion, and act they did. By paying the Gretna wages themselves, and assuring them that funding would be provided to help the club see out the rest of the season, and hopefully allowing time for a new buyer to come forward.

Now I won’t for a moment claim that the Gretna situation was identical to the one Hearts currently find themselves in. Brooks Mileson’s health had sadly deteriorated to a point that he was no longer able to back the club. Gretna had entered administration and were close to going out of business completely, which unfortunately would eventually happen.

But there are similarities. A club struggling financially, unable to pay their staff, and the SPL taking action on behalf of the players who were suffering. I think that is the key point in all of this, all action was aimed at resolving a complaint from the Hearts players.

Neil Doncaster admitted himself that the SPL couldn’t act unless a complaint was made, and if they received one they would then be duty bound to resolve it.

When a complaint emerged from 14 Hearts players, PFA chief executive Frasher Wishart stated:

“Our members’ wish is quite simple; they want to be paid their wages. There is no wish to take legal action against the club.”

Similarly to the Gretna situation the primary concern was ensuring that the players’ issue with wages was resolved. I’d presume the next concern would also be the future and stability of the SPL member club. Just like Gretna, the future of Hearts is surely important to the SPL considering they are a member of the organisation.

I won’t try to make sense of whether or not wages entered players’ accounts before or after midnight, it seems a pointless debate to me. Let’s focus on those who the SPL were representing with their action. The Hearts players.

First thing Tuesday morning Hearts’ skipper Marius Zaliukas tells STV the squad have received their January salaries “as promised”.

On Wednesday Kevin Kyle explained:

“Us as the players are happy with the situation. We’ve got our wages and that’s all we were asking for. The club said what they were going to do and we’ve been paid, so I don’t see any problems with it.”

He later went on to say:

“…the SPL made a statement, the wages arrived and, for me personally and the rest of the lads at the club, that’s the end of the matter.”

Like the players I presumed that this was the end of it, for January at least. I fully expected the SPL to ‘monitor’ the situation in future months. But those who had an issue now appeared satisfied it was resolved.

To the shock of many though, the SPL then charged Hearts. Not with anything to do with players though. In fact they charged them with a rule that falls under the section Relationship between Clubs and the League.

The SPL statement explained: “Heart of Midlothian FC are being charged under SPL Rule A3.1 with failing to behave with the utmost good faith to the SPL.”

I’m sorry. What?

Now I’d like to think that I’m fairly objective when it comes to these issues, although my maroon tinted specs will occasionally cloud my judgement. But I was baffled by the SPL’s decision.

I am certainly not a staunch Romanov backer, although few are any more. On this issue I feel the club have acted carelessly and unprofessionally. But if we are struggling financially, and had to pull out the stops to secure funds on time, then what purpose does picking the club up on an alleged discrepancy of a few hours serve?

If indeed the players are now satisfied, and I have no reason to believe that Kevin Kyle or Marius Zaliukas were lying, then the issue is surely resolved?

Rudi Skacel tweeted following the decision, seemingly baffled with the league’s stance:

“SPL??? Let’s hope they will not punish the supporters and the players with their actions!”

The hashtag #SPLyourehavingalaugh was trending on Twitter as outrage spread through the Jambo ranks.

So what on earth do the SPL hope to achieve, or indeed what sanctions do they wish to either impose, or suspend until a later date?

As many have already argued, a points deduction or fine are equally as futile in assisting the players.

Deducting points punishes the very people who the SPL were supposedly representing. A fine would merely redirect more funds away from the players’ pockets, and could in fact cause further issues with the payment of salaries.

The ONLY sensible action I could think of was to look into the possibility of funds destined for Hearts to be redirected to players, even though this certainly wouldn’t be straightforward.

The issue with that is that players HAVE been paid, and are apparently happy. Why isn’t the SPL?

Kevin Kyle experienced similar problems with wages when at Sunderland, and in fact the team agreed to receive part payments on wages each month, but with the promise from the PFA that parachute payments due to Sunderland would be redirected to them at the end of the season.

Now doesn’t that sound terribly sensible? Yes indeed.

I’ll be the first to admit that Hearts have handled this situation appallingly at times. Players were not kept in the loop and incoherent ramblings from Mr Romanov did little to quell fears for our future.

The governing body seems to believe that funds are available but are being withheld, but I cannot believe they know this for certain. I don’t, even if at times I’ve had my doubts and suspicions. So surely this financial problem at Hearts should be treated seriously, and the SPL should be working WITH the club to ensure players are paid, and happy, and the club survives?

Of course Romanov and the club must take full blame for the financial mess they find themselves in. We all knew we were heavily reliant on his funding, although we had little choice in the matter. But the same could be said of Gretna’s plight. Mileson’s illness and demise was tragic of course, but would the SPL have acted differently if this factor didn’t exist in the Gretna case? I doubt it.

They are there to assist clubs as well as players surely? I’m not for a moment suggesting that the SPL pay our wage bill. Just have a bit of perspective at least!

Many will argue that a deadline was given and it has, allegedly, been broken. An immediate warning on future conduct was the maximum sentence I expected. And this may still be the ultimate resolution. But to charge Hearts with such a ridiculous ‘crime’ has done little to help the situation.

The very fact they turned to such an obscure rule, one that could be interpreted in so many different ways, suggests that they didn’t really have any evidence, or reason, to charge us with anything substantial.

Former Hearts chairman Leslie Deans says he is “flabbergasted” at the SPL’s decision, stating:

“Are they seriously suggesting they would take action against a member club because some payments were a few hours late? Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“Are the SPL not aware there is an economic crisis? There is a battle going on at Tynecastle to stabilise the finances, and this threatened action is not going to help at all.”

At this point, I’d like to think the best solution all round would have been for the SPL and Hearts to take a step back, taking into account the satisfactory resolution for the concerned players, and to keep eyes firmly fixed on February 16th. After all, instructions were only issued to Hearts on the 4th January, and the first deadline handed to them was met 7 days in advance.

The SPL may now have instigated a legal battle between themselves and Hearts, and even if this ends in a slap on the wrist or a suspended sentence – the handling of the whole affair has bordered on farcical.

They failed to intervene for weeks, claiming they could only act upon a complaint from players. If this is the case, does that mean a complaint can then be taken as far as they wish? Even beyond the realms of which the complainant desired?

From footing the bill for a club’s wages less than four years ago, the SPL have come full circle and now seem intent on punishing a club for paying the wages themselves.

Hearts have made many errors themselves, and by no means am I absolving the club of any responsibility here. But does that make the SPL’s course of action the right one?

I wonder if rule A3.1 works both ways? Are the SPL acting in the utmost good faith towards Hearts, their players and their fans?

I’ll leave that for you to decide, but just ensure that whatever conclusion you arrive at you do so with the utmost good faith…


L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire