Roger Mitchell: The Circle of Milne

The premise for this piece started off as discussion with Roger Mitchell, former-CEO at the SPL over the merits of a thought provoking article by Michael Wood.  The topic – whether Scottish football was any better off for the SPL after 20 years.  It is well worth a read if, like us, you believe it is important to learn from the past rather than seeing it as ‘raking over old coals’.

It was our view that a follow up piece would be good reading that charts the direction of travel of UEFA money, revenues in the big leagues and Scotland’s place in the footballing world going forward.  What ensued was surprisingly forthright and shines a light on the game.

Cards on the table – we liked Roger Mitchell when he held the reigns.  He was a man who actually looked down the tracks and tried to pick the right course for the future rather than the now.  To our mind his views on rights owned media and streaming were so far ahead of its time that it’s debatable they were too early to actually work.  See reports of Amazon Prime and Netflix entering sports broadcasting 20 years later by way of example. What might surprise you though is that we liked him despite the fact that half of our four founding members have very good reason not to.  Both Ayr United and Falkirk (your writer’s team) fell foul of the attempts to improve infrastructure during his tenure by insisting on 10K all-seater stadiums for the top flight.  Personally, I really miss Brockville – home of the filthiest toilets in Scotland.  Maybe Roger absolves himself of responsibility for this in saying:

“I can’t take any credit for stadia as that was the Taylor report. All I did was be bloody minded in applying it. I wasn’t having these clubs with pigsty grounds playing the sporting integrity card. Anyone from Ayr or Falkirk will never see past anything like that.”

Even as a Falkirk fan I can appreciate the need to move with the times though and it is just nostalgia on my part. We’ve a product to sell and it’d be embarrassing. Maybe a tad hard done by that the rules changed just again just as the Bairns fortunes did!

The content of this discussion is rich in insight. The SPL wanted to stop the white elephant that is Hampden. Unity between clubs on a proposed Atlantic League or entering the English league pyramid. The events following the deposing of Jim Farry. That despite an existential threat brewing from the polarisation of power in Europe that would see the rise of the ‘mega-club’ (effectively makes the business end of today’s Champions League a closed shop) the SPL was hamstrung in its daily business trying to force a staunch and intransigent SFA to accept change at home. You can be certain we will be returning to THAT topic!

The most surprising revelation, however, from this conversation with Roger though was, that the popular view of Stewart Milne as being one of the obstacles to reform may be unkind. As its topical based on yesterday’s statement we shall focus on that for now.  Is he a visionary and man of action?  In Roger’s view:

“When Stewart Milne saw a need to do something, (as he was the leader) there was a context.  It wasn’t a Scottish impetus.  It was Scotland playing catch-up, watching England.  Seeing the game change away from bowling club mentalities.  Stewart saw that.  Interesting that he again this week speaks up.  Don’t underestimate Milne.  He is a proper visionary brain.  The critics of the SPL think it was borne of Scotland, through Scottish greed.  It wasn’t.  It was ‘this train is leaving the station, let’s start running or we are f*cked’.”

In recent years Mr Milne’s name has been relatively synonymous with ire. The Aberdeen fans were vocal about feeling he’d betrayed their interests. Celtic fans felt he was an apologist for the status quo and an ineffectual governing body.  Roger suggests differently on how Milne saw things back in the day.

“The main thought was that the leadership of football in Scotland was old.  And the game there needed to have a response to the impact that money and freedom of contract would have. One hundred percent correct vision.  A vision Italy [Roger’s new home] say never had”

This is a subject that Roger, who now writes romantically about football, covered in one of his articles.  Roger expands:

“The Premiership changed all. And that was when the SPL was born.  I joined a year later.  The initial impulse was from Milne and Robert Wilson, the first Chairman -with Iain Blair.  He knows better than me.  What I saw my first month was the imminent brutal polarisation in UEFA.  I saw Media Partners try to create the Super League.”

Those of us of a certain vintage will remember the imminent threat that such a breakaway league of European super-clubs posed the authority of UEFA.  Those who read this that are a little younger should make themselves aware of it by reading articles such as this.  It’s a major part of the ‘cause’ that led to the ‘effect’ of the Champions League being a funnel for money and big European matches to the elite of the big leagues at the expense of national champions of not-so-fortunate geographical coincidence.

“I saw the criteria of who they saw would participate. It was the big 5 media markets and their clubs. Us, Holland, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, Belgium…all out.  It was a cold shower moment.  They got their way if you look at the current Champions League set up.”

Again this is an area Roger has covered in his previous article lamenting the Faustian bargain that carries the ‘mega clubs’ in the big leagues off into the distance at the expense of the soul of football.  At the time Roger Mitchell, Stewart Milne and many others were in the prime seats to manage the circumstances as best possible for Scotland however.

“In short, in 1998, the writing was on the wall as I saw it. Hence the SPL’s focus on environment change from day 1…We pushed the Atlantic League in 1999. UEFA said no.  SFA no interest either.  Then I moved to try getting SPL clubs in to the English pyramid from 1999-2001…. All of this change, as [former St Johnstone chairman] Geoff Brown always said, could have been tried without creating the SPL, and that’s probably true.  But you see even today how old football there thinks, with guys like [former SFA chairman George] Peat. The SPL came about because there was no appetite for change in the corridors of [one of Peat’s predecessors as SPL chairman, Jim] Farry. So my job, instead of 100% focused externally on the brutal polarisation, was 80% internal politics: fighting the SFA and keeping my twelve in direction. Not one of my clubs broke ranks on Atlantic League or the England move. But I couldn’t get enough to stop Hampden.”

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The Mount Florida vanity project in all her glory, ready for millions more to be spent

Both ideas ended up on the scrap heap even if they are still mooted today.  It’s hard to argue now, with the benefit of hindsight that consolidation of the top teams in smaller countries into a more powerful league isn’t attractive to romantic ideas of football. It is great to see Red Star Belgrade back in this year’s Champions League. Those big games that appealed to the now ‘mega-clubs’ are just as appealing to the giants in smaller leagues – they just didn’t hold the sway to make such a grab. The world has gotten smaller and surely even UEFA can see now that football has become akin to a US style franchise system. The influx of big business ownership of football is a trend exacerbated by the predictability of revenues and returns under the new formats.  Where is the romance in that?  Whatever your club leanings, the stories of Celtic and Steaua Bucharest conquering the best of Europe with home-grown talent is the essence of football dreams. An Ajax team that reinvented football ideology lets people dream of systems so inventive they can upset monetary advantages but not on the scale of the gap now. Football without prospect of success against the odds is nobody but a businessman’s wet dream.

Responding to my thoughts that there should be a follow up story covering the direction football is going, Roger opined:

“It should be called ‘farting against thunder’. The smaller leagues are now dead. Football is for the mega-clubs from big countries. We have crumbs. That’s just undeniable.”

Roger recalls the words of journalist and author Stuart Cosgrove:

“Our TV deals and the approach to them has been woeful. [Roger Mitchell] had a more forward thinking vision with an SPL subscription service and more aggressive global packaging. We’ve just joined the long queue at Sky and we’ll always be at the back.”

Noting the correctness of this, Roger offers:

“The SPL knew all this and knew that a marginal league would need to find its own way to market itself, whilst big media would follow big football. That was SPLTV. We were correct.”

It’s a view that continues to divide opinion, but look at the facts. Both Celtic and Rangers now run profitable streaming services and the big business streaming companies are now looking at Scottish football broadcasting rights in the upcoming auction.  Ruminating on what could have been done differently, Roger continues:

“What did we do wrong? When we helped Fergus [McCann] topple Farry, we should have completely taken over the SFA. Robert Wilson and I discussed if I should move along the corridor and take the SFA CEO role. I didn’t want to, but a radical clear-out was needed. You can still see that. What eventually killed the SPL was what always does in football. Self-interest.  When the Old Firm voted down the SPLTV deal, which caused the other 10 to leave the league; all moral high ground ended in May 2002. Since then the SPL, SPFL, SFA have been shuffling chairs.”

There’s been a lot of rumbling – mainly from Celtic supporters – since that this was a pivotal moment that was lost. The lack of significant reform since and outcry recently against the SFA certainly gives cause for reflection on whether it all could have been different.  Sounding like a man who has been in one too many fight against the odds, Roger continues:

“The article is not missing a second part, it’s missing a denouncement. That war has been lost, and big clubs overseas have run away with the money. What vision of the game up there [in Scotland] is left? It’s a niche secondary/tertiary media rights property. But it’s a passionate market.  It’s Groundhog Day for 1997, led by the same splendid sparky from Aberdeen [Stewart Milne, referencing his recent call for a summit between SFA and SPFL]. He’s 100% right, as he was back then. Listen to him. What is the Scottish game’s unique selling proposition? Its passion, serious serious edge, great craic and connection with history. In short, fans baiting other fans, arguing, laughing. It’s a soap opera of bright colour. That can sell if packaged correctly. To a small market but so be it. It’s [BBC radio show Off  The Ball] linked to old firm bampottery, bragging rights and at the edges bigotry, obsession and hatred.”

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Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan of ‘Off The Ball’

Despite the pessimism that the soul of the game has long departed never to return at the top level, there’s an evident pride and passion for the Scottish game that even his self-imposed exile can’t keep him away from.  I can’t help but read into the Groundhog Day reference that maybe deep down he believes that such a summit could be the catalyst to re-spin the wheel and get it right this time. Maybe there is something more profound to Stewart Milne’s recent announcement than I gave him credit for in dismissing it as self-serving and only seeking more power for clubs rather than fans. It has certainly made me pause to reconsider, if not change my mind.

Pushing Roger a little on how he views Milne’s motivation, I asked if he sees Milne as an agent of change rather than self-interest, or both:

“Good sense. A man of balance. Nothing-is-black-and-white is football. Complexity isn’t a vice. A man who listens and reflects. We didn’t always disagree, but always thinking.”

Not satisfied that that really cut to the chase on Milne’s motivations, I pressed the issue further. Did he believe that Milne had the good of the game at heart? Can he separate his role in football from that of himself and Aberdeen FC?

“100%. But never forget these are businesses competing with each other.  With relegation always looming. All-for-one, one-for-all isn’t really possible. Stewart is for a big vision. No doubt. Full circle.”

Maybe there is more to Milne. His call for a summit seemed to be restricted to just disciplinary matters and getting fans on board, but the governance structure needs a whole lot more than that.  Will he be the unlikely man to step up on behalf of fans? According to Roger he was instrumental in direction of reform in the past. I would certainly love to be turned around in my previously expressed views.

The discussion ended with Roger self-depreciatingly (as is his wont) dismissing everything he’d just said as the self-indulgent and cathartic ramblings of someone who failed. However, as I’m sure he knows there is no failure in being knocked down, just failing to get back up.

My overriding memory of Roger’s time in charge at the SPL was not one of failure, but the impression he made as someone desperate to make an overall difference for the better against a resolute status quo.  That’s not a common thing I’d say of people involved with Scottish football since.

He’s right that self-interests win out over time and unity only lasts as long as a purpose. But not that the game is finished. Just as every team goes through a slump, we’ve got to accept that this is where we are at right now and make the best of it short term here in Scotland.  Real change in our fortunes has to start in house by clearing the decks ready for the next time the board gets knocked, so that we have our A-game ready to go.  If we don’t then we will be stuck in the dark ages. German fans set a blueprint for fan participation in football and they are already at the top table.  For everything that’s been said, there is a fundamental truth that all the money in football starts with the fans.  When change comes to access to the trough, it will be because change was demanded by the many left out, not by the few who hold sway – environmental change right enough! For right now however Scottish fans don’t even have a say in their own game and that has to be priority number one.

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The conversation featured in this article took place on twitter (see details on footer). You can follow Roger Mitchell on @RPMComo.

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