There is an episode of The West Wing which I think about often when I think about Scottish football reform and where Celtic stands on it. It’s called No Exit, and one of the stories in it involves the White House Director of Communications, Toby Zeigler, arguing with Will Bailey, who he brought to the building to be his protégé but who left to join the Vice President as his chief of staff.
The VP, Bob Russell, is a bungling joke to most of the White House … and Zeigler is furious that this talented, and even brilliant, political operative is making him look credible.
“He’s not insubstantial when you get to know him,” is the weak defence Bailey offers in mitigation. Toby looks right at him. “He’s a featherweight who only looks like a lightweight because he’s got you propping him up,” he replies with scorn.
And that, to me, is Neil Doncaster. A governing body CEO should be a heavyweight. Intellectual, efficient, relentless in pursuit of excellence and rigorous in upholding the rules. Unfortunately, we in Scotland have a habit of “settling for.”
Our leaders are, more often than not, pygmies. Just when you thought you couldn’t do worse than the likes of Gordon Smith, along comes Neil Doncaster to make you long for the bad old days. Even on his best one, he never even gets to look like a lightweight.
Last week, the story broke that six clubs are angry with the SPFL board over the report they recently announced had given their governance procedures a clean bill of health. I wrote a piece when that report came out and I was fairly scathing of the idea that anyone should be impressed by what amounts to an internal audit. They picked the frame of reference for it and made sure that it drew all the right conclusions; it was a bit of a farce overall.
But I found it amusing in the context of Ibrox; they were the ones who had demanded a review and they got one. The SPFL so very obviously rigging it was an open two fingers up to the arrogance of the club across the city seeking to cause them more problems and being outwitted by one of the oldest tricks in the political book. I thought that was funny.
Yet the Ibrox club weren’t the only people who thought that we needed a governance review, and so they weren’t the only people eagerly awaiting the publication of the report. Now that fully half of the clubs in the top flight have expressed their severe displeasure with the way they are all being treated like mugs it is a big story and a cause for serious concern.
But what concerns me even more is that there is no sign of Celtic here. I mean, we have no problem signing up for sponsorship deals with companies which, coincidentally, have similar ones with the club across town and we have the perverse little arrangement with them that guarantees one of us is always represented on the boards of the SPFL and the SFA – a grubby deal which reflects dreadfully on us as it happens – but we won’t join them and five other clubs to raise objections to this? Why the Hell not? This is no longer Ibrox’s fight.
The problem is, we’ve spent years propping Doncaster up. I remember one of the Resolution 12 guys telling me that Lawwell and the board were happy with him and his “leadership” and this is part of the routine conspiracy theory in the media and elsewhere that we run the game here with Doncaster as our proxy. Nobody can point to a single instance of us using this so-called influence to our own advantage though except in two cases and both are ridiculous.
The first was the decision to end the season early in the COVID year, which led to a complete Ibrox meltdown and the second was the decision to bring forward the winter break the following year. Almost every club wanted the same thing, save for a handful of which Ibrox was the main one; that they both “benefited Celtic” is a complete coincidence and made no difference to the outcome of either title which I am very confident we’d have won anyway.
Doncaster is dreadful. His leadership is an utter embarrassment, and for someone allegedly in the pockets of Celtic he spends an awful lot of his time bowing and scraping to Ibrox. There cannot be a more gutless football administrator in Europe than this guy as the numerous rows over SPFL sponsorship deals have proved. Ibrox openly confronts this guy and he retreats, usually making some ludicrous concession and often at the expense of the rest of the clubs.
He has allowed that club to run amuck and the thing is, it hasn’t helped him one bit because not only do they hate him but they’ve been tireless in their various campaigns to remove him from office, with the latest of them the one that led to the report in question.
We’ve all seen what happens when public and private bodies are allowed to get away with this tactic; they give themselves a clean bill of health and nothing ever changes. The idea that the SPFL is actually performing as you would want it to is a joke and the SFA is just as bad. Hampden needs gutting out and more and more you wonder why we, as the strongest club, seems to have no interest in leading a reform agenda. Protecting Doncaster is part of it.
In that West Wing episode Will Bailey is hurt and baffled at Toby’s insistence that his candidate is a joke since the President they all admire and respect chose him over other better qualified people; what Bailey doesn’t realise is that the Republicans forced that choice on the White House after the previous VP quit in a scandal, because they feared that a strong Vice President would be a good bet to win the next election. Bailey, in trying to rationalise the choice, has made a huge error but then he was working with incomplete information.
And maybe we are too; you always have to consider that hypothesis.
But when you look at the state we are in, from TV deals which don’t deliver to sponsorship deals where one club can exploit loopholes to cause chaos, and the third-rate nature of the discourse over the game and the shocking number of problems we identified in 2012 and which have somehow not been fixed I think its fair to say that Doncaster has been here too long and has scandalously under-performed. All the same problems we have at Parkhead because of directors who have been hanging around way beyond what is normal in business and go against standard business practices are replicated at Hampden … and maybe that’s it.
Maybe its just as simple as our club not wanting to see fresh thinking in our national sport because if someone came in with revolutionary ideas and turned everything around that would cast a harsh light on Celtic and get people wondering why we can’t do the same. Maybe in protecting Doncaster we’re actually protecting the status quo in our own house.
Whatever the truth I think Doncaster has been in post too long and half a dozen clubs want answers and instead of standing in front of this guy and giving him a shield we should be demanding those answers with them, and above and beyond it simply being the right thing to do, there is another reason why which should be so obvious to our directors that I shouldn’t need to spell it out; if this swells into an actual reform movement the Ibrox club will brief the media that they are at the head of it and the media would love nothing more than to write that story, especially if it puts us on the wrong side of a debate which we should have started ourselves.
We fans are often accused of thinking short term and only in the interests of our own clubs, but I’ll tell you now that if our club ended up opposing a truly progressive agenda shift and somehow helped to elevate this redneck Ibrox board to where they looked like leaders and visionaries that would easily be the most appalling strategic error of them all, and quite possibly one of the worst mistakes in our history. It would make not backing a manager look like a modest error and the loss of league titles to be virtually inconsequential.