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Courting Controversy

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Having spent the best part of the last two years firing up my laptop to write pieces laced with contempt for my own football team, a Covid-enforced break from that over the past two months has been a welcome change and a spot of light relief. Even if I do start to miss it with the sort of masochism only supporters of less successful teams can understand, I can rest in the knowledge that the next on-field disappointment won’t be far away.

Until then, those feelings of resentment have been directed elsewhere and reached new levels yesterday when it was announced that only 16 of the 42 clubs in Scotland were interested in league reconstruction, thus rubber-stamping the decision to enforce demotion on Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer.

Perhaps even more predictable than the result itself is the mainstream narrative emerging from it. As always when it comes to this farcical episode, the media’s focus has been predominantly on Hearts, with many outlets painting this outcome as a “hammer blow” and a “major defeat” for the club, glossing over the potentially more severe consequences of this injustice for both Partick and Stranraer, neither of which is guaranteed a start date for the new season, such is the sorry state of Leagues One and Two at present.

With that in mind, it is astonishing that people feel there is justification in relegating Partick from the Championship (and Hearts into it) when there are teams in that league unable to fulfil their basic obligation to complete a full fixture calendar in 2020/21. With the upcoming Championship season having been shortened as a result, two clubs that are capable of playing out the season in its entirety have effectively been dealt a double punishment.

Unfortunately, that comes as little surprise and only epitomises how this pandemic and its impact on Scottish football have been manipulated by certain clubs to suit their own narrow interests, no matter how contradictory or hypocritical they appear. On one hand, the process of condemning clubs to financial uncertainty after a shortened season is deemed acceptable, while on the other, the expectation that clubs play a full 36-game season in such financially uncertain times is not.

For many, the added convenience in dressing this up principally as a Hearts issue is that it perpetuates the myth about reconstruction being forced onto smaller powerless clubs by a nasty “big club bully”. Since time was called on the season back in March, many “small club” figureheads have worn this like armour, among them Ayr United chairman Lachlan Cameron (”“Hearts are a big club…they can stamp their feet and make things happen”) and Peterhead manager Jim McInally, who called on other lower league clubs to “fight and show [Ann Budge] she can’t come and bully us”.

Similarly, the chairmen of St Mirren and Hamilton Accies both suggested that if their clubs were in Hearts’ position, reconstruction would never have made it onto the table in the first place. The inbred lovechild of the “big club bully” myth, this has been one of Scottish football Twitter’s go-to arguments whenever constructive debate proves too much of a challenge. Whether its a comfort blanket, an inferiority complex or simple self-deception, it serves the narrative in much the same way, allowing clubs to justify their position by casting themselves as victims of bigger clubs’ perceived power, conveniently ignoring the smaller clubs they screwed over in the process.

If the SPFL Board had not already demonstrated its staggeringly poor judgement of the situation by other means, its steadfast belief (expressed in a statement on its website) that yesterday’s events will “draw a line under” the situation certainly has.

On the contrary, while cost implications appear to have ruled out legal redress for Partick and Stranraer in the short term, yesterday’s outcome and events leading up to it will set the tone in Scottish football for many years to come. Bitterness and division have always existed to some degree in our domestic game, but this was a unique opportunity to put all of that to one side. However, if 26 of Scotland’s 42 senior clubs are unable to see past their own doorsteps and show solidarity during a period of such unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval, it is highly unlikely they ever will. By turning their backs on unity, those clubs have made rods for them.

For Hearts, court action now looms, with an official club statement confirming that legal proceedings were already underway. How this next stage develops remains to be seen, though the precedent set by the Belgian Competition Authority certainly offers hope of an outcome in Hearts’ favour.

While there are mixed reports over the amount of compensation the club could seek, previous comments from Neil Doncaster have indicated that any potential payout would be shouldered by the SPFL members and not the governing body itself. If that is the case, and the court rules in Hearts’ favour, there is every chance some clubs will feel the pinch considering how many were looking to benefit from the bailout package provided by James Anderson. If some of those also happen to be among those that blocked reconstruction efforts, sympathy will be in short supply down Gorgie way.

Of course, that is all hypothetical for now and very much based on my own feelings of bitterness at the injustice of the whole situation, but I certainly won’t be the only one. Football supporters have long memories and there is already talk of Hearts fans boycotting away games against the clubs responsible, with any money ordinarily reserved for those trips being re-directed to the Foundation. The extent to which this pans out over the coming years remains to be seen, but there is no denying the strength of feeling among Hearts fans nor their right to respond in such a manner, regardless of how bitter it may be perceived by others.

By contrast, it is important that the club leaves the tribalism to the supporters and continues to conduct itself with the dignity and decorum it has shown throughout this sad state of affairs, not just in the immediate future but for years to come, thereby ensuring no accusations of double standards or hypocrisy can be levelled should similar circumstances arise again. If Scottish football is going to insist on eating itself from the inside, Heart of Midlothian should resist the feast.

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