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EXPLAINED: Why Aberdeen and other clubs are furious with SPFL’s Murdoch MacLennan and Neil Doncaster over handling of independent governance report

The Press and Journal lifts the lid on the background to the Dons' and five other Premiership clubs' joint-statement on Thursday, which demanded answers from the 'SPFL executive'.

Aberdeen FC's pittodrie stadium
Aberdeen have joined five other Premiership clubs in demanding answers from the SPFL. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

Aberdeen and five other Premiership clubs are furious with the “SPFL executive” – namely chairman Murdoch MacLennan and chief executive Neil Doncaster – over their handling of a recently-completed independent review into the governing body.

On Thursday, the Dons joined Rangers, Motherwell, St Mirren, St Johnstone and Livingston in expressing “serious concerns” over “the report’s independence, transparency, and the overall governance of the SPFL”,  and want “full clarity on numerous issues”.

They have threatened “further action” if their questions are not answered and concerns not addressed.

SPFL independent review announcement and chairman MacLennan’s ‘reassured’ statement

In July, the SPFL announced an independent governance review after settling a dispute with Rangers regarding car sale firm cinch’s sponsorship of the league and the conflict with the Ibrox club’s pre-existing deal with Park’s of Hamilton.

Following the ugly saga, the SPFL appointed a sub-committee to lead the governance review, with independent non-executive director Karyn McCluskey named chair, and joined by audit committee members James MacDonald, of member club Ross County, and Chris McKay, of Celtic.

External auditors Henderson Loggie were asked to review – “SPFL corporate governance policies and procedures”, “board meetings to assess the board’s effectiveness and compliance with legal and regulatory requirements”, and “internal control systems, to ensure they are effective in mitigating risks to the league”.

The auditors were then to report back with recommendations for the SPFL board.

On January 22, SPFL chairman MacLennan issued a statement saying he was “reassured, but not complacent” after seeing the draft report of the “major independent review into the governance of the league”.

SPFL chairman Murdoch McLennan.
SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan.

The statement added: “The three-month review was carried out by independent external auditors Henderson Loggie and involved detailed questionnaires and interviews with 15 stakeholders, including senior executive team members, non-executive directors, and other senior figures in the game.”

It continued: “In its overall conclusion, Henderson Loggie found that the SPFL demonstrates compliance with significant elements of the UK code of corporate governance… Henderson Loggie found that the SPFL is strong in terms of commercial expertise and knowledge, with a diverse range of skills available to provide support and challenge to the SPFL executive team.”

MacLennan went on to say the SPFL would “now take time to consider Henderson Loggie’s detailed recommendations before bringing suggested changes back to the 42 SPFL member clubs for their consideration.”

Dons and others wants answers over MacLennan statement

However, it is understood the six Premiership clubs, including the Dons, are outraged as they feel MacLennan jumped the gun with his January statement.

They also think the SPFL chairman has painted an overly-positive picture of the findings of the review.

Thursday’s joint-statement from the clubs claims MacLennan’s statement in January was “issued without the approval or knowledge of members of the SPFL board or SPFL member clubs”.

The Press and Journal understands MacLennan’s statement was also published without the knowledge of review chair McCluskey, and before the SPFL board – which includes representatives from clubs in each of the four divisions – had been given time to properly look at the draft report.

It is also understood an SPFL board meeting concluded just an hour-and-a-half before MacLennan’s statement was put out, but the board were given no prior warning about it.

Thursday’s joint-statement from the six clubs added it was “highly inappropriate” for the SPFL chairman to have made any public comment before the board had discussed the draft report into the independent governance review at a scheduled future meeting.

Issues over redacted draft, concerns raised by auditors, scope of review and range of evidence

It is understood the six clubs, including Aberdeen – as well as other member clubs who have not put their head above the parapet by signing the joint-statement – also want answers on what they feel was MacLennan and SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster effectively marking their own homework before, as is noted in the joint-statement, a redacted draft report was sent on to the SPFL board.

In the joint-statement, the six clubs say, on the contents of the report: the “clubs and others are deeply concerned about its independence, given that the SPFL executive received the first draft of the report and made changes to it prior to sending it to SPFL board members.”

In contrast to MacLennan’s “reassured” assessment of the review’s findings, The Press and Journal understands Henderson Loggie’s auditors may have expressed several concerns over how the SPFL is run.

One of those concerns thought to have been raised by the auditors is understood to be Doncaster having a two-year notice period, which makes it very difficult – and expensive – for the chief executive to be removed from his post

SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster. Image: SNS.

This point flies in the face of the blanket claim in chairman MacLennan’s January statement, which stated: “Henderson Loggie found that the SPFL demonstrates compliance with significant elements of the UK Code of Corporate Governance”.

The Press and Journal has also been told the SPFL and Rangers’ cinch debacle – which SPFL member clubs picked up the tab for and sparked the governance review in the first place – was not even covered by the review.

In Aberdeen and the other five top-flight clubs’ joint-statement on Thursday, it is also claimed only one club not currently (or previously) represented on the SPFL board – understood to be the Dons – were asked to contribute to the review.

It is further understood the review was carried out with input coming primarily from full-time SPFL employees, rather than evidence from the 42 member clubs – who, the joint-statement says, have yet to even see the report.

The joint-statement added: “Of the 42 member clubs, only one had the opportunity to input into the report’s investigation, outside of current or previous SPFL board members.

“Despite several requests from the clubs, the report has yet to be released to any of the member clubs, despite the clubs footing the bill for its creation.

“The handling of the independent governance report has brought the clubs’ governance concerns to a head, and it is now incumbent on the SPFL board and executive, for the sake of trust in those running our game, to provide clarity over these clear and deeply troubling concerns as a matter of urgency.”