Livingston are the latest casualties of the financial crisis that has hit Scottish football
By Dan Brennan in Glasgow
This has been a summer of discontent in Scotland as, for the second time in a decade, mayhem hit the Scottish Premier League’s TV sponsorship deal, while the spectre of a financial crisis loomed and the national team’s hopes of World Cup qualification suffered a major blow.
The dramatic collapse in June of Setanta – the SPL’s main TV partners – left a black hole in the budgets of all the top-flight clubs. Worst affected were Celtic and Rangers, whose own club TV channels, linked to Setanta, were forced off the air, depriving tens of thousands of supporters of their £140-a-year subscription service.
The Glasgow rivals attempted to take matters into their own hands, forming an unholy alliance to bid for the TV rights themselves. However their efforts were rebuffed by the SPL, who instead agreed a new cut-price deal with media groups ESPN and Sky. Celtic chairman John Reid described the deal as “a disastrous misjudgement”, adding that it would cost his club “a potential loss of up to £12million over the four-year period – the equivalent of around 6,500 season tickets each year”.
However, the biggest individual casualty has been Livingston, who were placed in administration – for the second time in five years – and relegated from the First Division to the Third. Just last year, they came under new ownership when an Italian consortium purchased the club for £1.
But after West Lothian council took the club to court over an unpaid £330,000 – part of an overall debt in excess of £1m – it became clear the new owners were in no position to lead them back into the black and chairman Angelo Massone agreed to sell his 75 per cent stake to administrators Mazars for £25,000.
It is a sad denouement for a club who, three years ago, were holding their own in the SPL. In the domino effect caused by their relegation, Airdrie United and Cowdenbeath were promoted to the First and Second Divisions respectively, throwing the fixture schedule into chaos just ahead of the start of the new season.
A consortium of local businessmen appeared to have thrown Livingston a lifeline, but they then said they would back down if the club was demoted to the fourth tier, and the administrators have described the Scottish Football League’s punishment as the “death knell” for the club.
“You have to bear in mind what we were trying to do here,” argues SFL chief executive David Longmuir. “We were trying to help a club to survive, and at the same time protect the integrity of the rule that was breached as well. That is really fundamental for the ongoing good of the game.”
Donald McGruther, appointed interim manager on behalf of the administrators, was less optimistic, saying: “Unless I’m extremely lucky and the consortium is prepared to take a view that they can survive in the Third Division, I don’t think it makes economic sense.”
One of Livi’s biggest debts is to the Inland Revenue (HMRC), who have also been busy trying to extract unpaid dues from Heart of Midlothian, a club who, under their Lithuanian owners, have got playing brinkmanship with creditors down to a fine art. HMRC has initiated a winding-up order that could ultimately lead to Hearts following Livingston into administration, but the Tynecastle club – who last season twice failed to pay their own squad on time and who have debts estimated at £30m – insist they will have no problem settling their dues.
“Hearts has been informed of the petition that has been raised and that came as a surprise as the club has a payment schedule in place with HMRC and this will be met in full and to the agreed timescales,” claimed director Sergejus Fedotovas.
“Mr [Vladimir] Romanov and his colleagues have taken things to the wire before as far as paying bills are concerned,” mused former chairman George Foulkes. “So far, the club has survived, but it’s certainly not good for the nerves.”
Hopes that the national team would serve up some cheer by moving closer to World Cup qualification were dashed when they were beaten 4-0 in Oslo to Norway – a country that they had previously never lost away to. The scoreline could have been even worse, which exposed the lack of depth in the squad and left manager George Burley struggling for excuses.
Defeat to their main rivals for the runners-up spot leaves Burley’s team now having to win their final two games at Hampden Park – against Macedonia and the runaway group winners, Holland – in order to keep their prospects of a play-off place for South Africa alive.