First Division Champions (Promotion)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:30 pm on 26th March 2003.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 12:30 pm, 26th March 2003

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Bureau for providing time for the debate, and to the 73 members who signed my motion, which made it one of the best-supported motions ever in the Parliament. The fact that the motion is supported by a majority of members of the Parliament—members of all parties and none and members from virtually every part of Scotland—is an indication of the strength and breadth of feeling on the issue of promotion to the Scottish Premier League. It would, of course, be inappropriate for the Scottish Parliament to try to dictate to the SPL on that matter, but I hope that the SPL will listen to the views of the Scottish Parliament, which has responsibility for sports policy as well as other matters.

I do not want to be purely parochial. As the member for the constituency in which Falkirk Football Club is based, it is my intention to present the case for Falkirk FC. However, if Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club, for example, were to win the first division of the Scottish Football League, I think that it should also have the opportunity to put its case for promotion. I have no doubt that other members, particularly Fergus Ewing, might want to do that.

At present, Falkirk is top of the first division and Falkirk fans feel, understandably, that it would be a travesty of justice if their club were to win the first division championship but be denied promotion to the SPL. The club's recent success has been due to the efforts of the players, the fans, the management and the board, who have achieved a remarkable turnaround in the club's performance. Five years ago, Falkirk FC was on the verge of extinction when it went into receivership. I do not want to dwell on the activities of previous boards, but any mismanagement was certainly not due to the current board, which came to the rescue and set about rebuilding the club to ensure its re-entry into the top flight of Scottish football.

Everybody accepts that Falkirk's present home of Brockville is completely unsuitable for the SPL. However, Brockville has been sold to Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc and the proceeds from the sale are to be invested in a new stadium. In partnership with Falkirk Council, Falkirk FC is in the process of building a community stadium, which will be not only a home for Falkirk FC, but an asset for the entire community; the stadium will provide a variety of facilities for sports and business, including a technicians training facility that will be a centre of excellence.

The stadium will be owned and managed by a joint venture company and Mr Colin Maclean, director of BP Grangemouth, has agreed to chair the board. The stadium will have a 10,000, all-seated capacity and will meet the SPL criteria. Members will have received a letter from Lex Gold, chairman of the SPL, outlining the history of and reasons for the SPL's decision to insist that all its member clubs must have a stadium with a minimum capacity of 10,000 seats. However, that decision has been questioned recently in view of the fact that few SPL matches—except those that involve the old firm—attract crowds of 10,000. However, as Lex Gold points out in his letter, the 10,000, all-seated capacity is also a licensing requirement of the Union of European Football Associations.

In the case of Falkirk FC, the new stadium will satisfy SPL and UEFA criteria, but unfortunately it will not be ready until this time next year. In the meantime, Falkirk FC has signed a contract with the owners of the Excelsior stadium in Airdrie for the use of that stadium until the new Falkirk stadium is ready. The Excelsior stadium also meets SPL and UEFA criteria and that is why Falkirk FC is asking the SPL to respond positively to its application.

Of course, that arrangement would involve a temporary ground-sharing agreement with Airdrie United, but I fail to see why that should present any great difficulty. Some of the biggest and most successful clubs in the world share football stadia. For example, AC Milan and Inter Milan share the San Siro stadium, and Lazio and Roma share the Olympic stadium in Rome.

It is also worth recalling that, a few years ago, Celtic was allowed to share Hampden with Queen's Park for a season while Celtic Park was being redeveloped. All that Falkirk asks for is the approval of a similar temporary arrangement to allow the club to be promoted to the SPL if it wins the first division championship this season.

The main criterion for promotion should be footballing merit. I accept Lex Gold's point that other criteria such as safety, public order and spectator comfort are essential, but Falkirk's proposals do not reduce safety, public order or spectator comfort. The interim proposal for ground sharing and the long-term proposal for the new stadium meet those criteria. I therefore believe that the SPL should accept Falkirk's application.

Falkirk Football Club has a long and honourable history, having won the Scottish cup twice. For many years, the club was in the top league of Scottish football. Like most football clubs, we have had our ups and downs. The club is now at the top of the first division and is one of only six clubs left in the Scottish cup. Everybody at the club has worked hard to secure a better future for it. It would be a fair reward for that hard work and success on the field if Falkirk won promotion as first division champions. I therefore urge the SPL to approve Falkirk's application.