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Demotion: an injustice done unto ourselves?

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On Monday 18th May, the SPFL officially called time on the 2019/20 campaign and closed the latest chapter in what has proved to be a pretty embarrassing tale for Scottish football in general. Unfortunately, unless Ann Budge can pull a rabbit out her hat and convince her counterparts that league reconstruction is the way forward, that decision means Hearts will be playing Championship football next season, whenever that may be.

Aside from the predictable waves of schadenfreude flowing forth from other fan bases, there have been countless blistering hot takes about this outcome, the most pertinent being that Hearts somehow “deserve” to go down, an argument most recently put forward by St Mirren chief executive Tony Fitzpatrick in an interview with the Paisley Daily Express:

“Hearts do deserve to go down. They’ve played 30 games and only managed four or five wins, so as far as I’m concerned they are bottom of the table for a reason.. They had money available and made some big signings in the January transfer window but results still weren’t going their way and, to be honest, I couldn’t see that changing for them.”

Regardless of whether or not you believe this group of Hearts players had it in them to escape the drop, any notion that they deserve to go down implies that the situation was beyond repair or mathematically impossible to fix, which was clearly not the case. In fact, the situation at the foot of the table was so tight that, had Hearts left Paisley with all three points in March, it could so easily have been St Mirren propping up the table and facing this deeply unfair treatment. It’s hard to imagine Mr Fitzparick piping the same tune in those circumstances.

It could simply be down to Fitzpatrick’s short memory or the massive chip on his shoulder (the comments about money would suggest as much) but there is something even more laughable about someone in his position making such bold claims, when only last season his club was in a near-identical situation with four wins after 30 games. When you consider that the Paisley side went on to survive the automatic drop, despite having six fewer points than Hearts and a bigger deficit to overcome at this stage, any suggestion that we “deserved” to go down in similar circumstances with eight games remaining, 24 points left to play for and a gap of just four to close, is patently nonsense.

Meanwhile, there have been those who openly admit that it’s an unjust outcome, claim to sympathise with the affected clubs and suggest they would feel just as aggrieved in the same situation, yet so easily dismiss efforts to find a fairer, workable solution to what is an unprecedented set of circumstances. It’s that latter detail people really seem to be struggling with. Rather than acknowledging the uniqueness of the problem and the need for an appropriate solution, we have the likes of Jim Goodwin suggesting league reconstruction is some kind of bailout attempt exclusive to Hearts. Not only does that trivialise the plight of Partick Thistle and Stranraer, it also misses the point entirely.

In his comments, Goodwin dropped the mother of all bombshells when he revealed that “without this virus, we wouldn’t be talking about league reconstruction”. I don’t profess to be particularly clued up on the complexities of pandemics, so I would need to run this by Professor Goodwin himself, but my guess is that without this virus, we would also be playing every division to its natural conclusion with teams’ fates decided as they should be by their performances on the pitch.

Similarly, without this virus, I also presume businesses the length and breadth of the country would still be making money with which to pay their employees’ wages instead of relying on government furlough schemes. Unfortunately, neither is possible, hence the need for extraordinary measures to ensure nobody is materially disadvantaged as a result of something completely beyond their control.

This is the Self Preservation Football League

Of course it’s no coincidence that the St Mirren manager holds that opinion: after all, his club is not one of the affected parties, which is symptomatic of the self-interest that has underpinned this whole episode. Fans of other clubs (many of whom seem to also be fans of split hairs) will protest that Hearts are also acting out of self-interest in pushing for an alternative outcome. However, what those people routinely fail to acknowledge is that Hearts (as well as Partick and Stranraer) have been left no choice but to fight their own corner as a result of the widespread refusal from other clubs and the governing body to entertain a more compassionate, common sense solution to this unique problem.

Instead, after a farcical vote to call time on the season, many of these clubs kiboshed the notion of an expanded league, presumably through fear of losing out on an extra visit from one half of the Old Firm each season. Tragic indictment of our domestic game that may be, but it’s little wonder clubs feel so reliant on the Old Firm pitching up three times a season when they’ve been conditioned into believing it’s the only sustainable way to operate in Scottish football.

That mindset is a by-product of the alarming lack of leadership and direction at the top of our game. We’re talking about a governing body which has made an art form out of its failure to promote the best interests of Scottish football as a whole, as evidenced by their overarching belief that 40 of its senior clubs exist in servitude to the other two, their repeated struggles to secure league sponsorship and the paltry scraps they gratefully lap up from TV companies’ tables – though only after they’ve sat obediently waiting for everyone else to finish eating, rolled over a few times, had their bellies rubbed and then promised four televised fixtures between those two sides as part of the agreement.

A governing body run by a man who, back in 2012, tried his hardest to persuade lower league clubs to let a new-co Rangers bypass the bottom two tiers in order to fast-track them into the First Division after a financial collapse entirely of their own doing. A man who, by contrast, has been far less enthusiastic to jump through such hoops and make one-off concessions for clubs this time round, despite the root cause being entirely out of their control. A man who, only days after consigning these clubs to premature demotion and the financial uncertainty that comes with it during a global pandemic, had the temerity to issue those clubs with a public warning against legal action as it would be to the financial detriment of the clubs who voted for this outcome in the first place.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen the same hypothetical argument put forward that if the shoe was on the other foot and it was Hamilton or St Mirren in our position, there would be far less clamour for reconstruction. This may well be true of other clubs in the league, but given how much interest Ann Budge has shown in the greater good of the Scottish game over the past 5-6 years, there is enough to suggest Hearts would back any club facing a similar plight. Nevertheless, the fact that people are even putting that argument forward says just as much about the self-preservation mentality that exists within the league. Coupled with the scaremongering tactics of those at the very top, it’s hard to see Ann Budge’s second attempt at league reconstruction reaching a more successful conclusion than her first; court therefore seems the more likely destination.

A Mess Four Years in the Making

Meantime, a siege mentality has grown within the Hearts support and it seems inevitable that the fans will drum up financial support for any legal action the club decides to take. Admittedly, when the idea of a fan-funded legal fight was mooted by former chairman Leslie Deans in a recent Evening News article, it didn’t sit right with me at first, largely because of the significant financial backing the supporters have provided the club in recent years for minimal return on the pitch.

But Hearts fans are unrivalled in how they respond to a crisis and while the club has not made any official call for them to put their hands in their pockets, they were always going to respond as such. Their relationship with the club may never have seemed more fractious than in the past 18 months, but regardless of how grudging it may be at times, the fans will always have that underlying devotion that comes to the fore whenever a common enemy (say, Neil Doncaster) threatens the welfare of their loved one, like an older brother defending his usually-annoying younger sibling against a bully. That unwavering and steadfast support – even when the product on the pitch has been nothing short of abysmal for four seasons – is something that should be celebrated.

By the same token, it should never be taken as a given, especially when there are many supporters feeling the economic effects of this crisis themselves. Likewise, just as this Tory government has tried to tap into people’s sense of “Britishness” to distract from its own part in the escalation of the pandemic, such benevolence should not be misinterpreted as an exoneration of the club’s own part in what has been a startling four-year decline.

While there are legitimate arguments against the manner in which we’ve been demoted, there are equally valid questions to be asked about why a club with the fourth-largest budget it in the league is having to contest an unjust premature demotion in the first place. At a time when the club has achieved levels of off-field stability never seen before, it is galling to think the fans are digging deeper into their pockets to tackle a problem that originated on our own doorstep. Ultimately, it feels as though the fans are the main losers here.

Of course no reasonable supporter expects their club to get every decision right and the occasional isolated misstep can always be forgiven, but since the Ian Cathro gamble failed to pay off those bad decisions have only snowballed: from Craig Levein’s dual-role as manager and director of football to Ann Budge’s blind faith in his ability, not to mention all the eye-watering sums of money wasted on annual squad rebuilds and lengthy, lucrative contracts for talentless mercenaries along the way.

The resulting mess is one of the reasons many regard our current manager as “the right man at the wrong time”. Though Daniel Stendel has certainly made his own mistakes since taking over from Levein (tactical naivety and persisting with Joel Pereira chief among them) few can deny that he was hamstrung early on by the poor circumstances he inherited from his predecessor. Having spent his first month in charge trying to teach an unfit, under-performing squad a more positive, attacking brand of football without any of his own coaching staff to support him, the German’s task of improving results was always going to resemble that of someone trying to assemble a luxury sports car on Scrapheap Challenge.

The fact that there is even such a thing as a “wrong time” for someone of Stendel’s relative popularity to arrive at Hearts is a sorry indictment of the club’s stewardship on the park over the past four years – nothing to do with Neil Doncaster or our fellow SPFL members. At the same time, it is worth noting that acknowledgement of the club’s culpability in this is not an acceptance of our treatment; in fact, it is entirely possible to feel disillusioned with the final outcome while highlighting the poor internal decision-making that dragged us to such depths.

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