NOTHING stirs football fans into moral outrage quite like television. Money from television coverage is like a calculating friend, clinging on like heroin, and rarely loosening its grip on the beautiful game.

This week a new deal was struck with Sky television, but it was neither simple nor free from recrimination. So deep and treacherous are the arguments that have surrounded the new deal, that it would take a history lesson to unpick the tangled mess.

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down football, the season was approaching its final phase of matches. At the top end of the Scottish Premiership, Celtic were on target to win the title, their ninth in a row, and only an extraordinary and highly implausible run of results would allow Rangers to catch them. Motherwell and Aberdeen were still distant contenders to catch Rangers. The real action was at the foot of the table where Hearts were bottom, facing relegation but with enough games still to play to save their skins.

Initially, many argued that the season could be played out when the virus faded, but with a rising tally of deaths, restrictions on movement and public health guidelines, that outcome became increasingly remote. With no match-day income, a major threat to the solvency of several clubs appeared on the horizon and the solution inevitably hinged on striking a deal with television.

In order to release the prize money for league placings, the league body the SPFL were forced to “call” the season and bring it to an unsatisfactory end. After much wrangling, a formula based on average points was applied. By this anomaly

St Johnstone, who had played fewer games, were able to leapfrog Hibs into the sixth-place slot.

In other areas of public life, such a simple arithmetical solution would suffice, but this is Scottish football and so knee-jerk emotions and long-held rivalries kicked in. Rangers fans claimed that Celtic’s historic title was “tainted”, Celtic fans painted the town green, pasting celebratory posters in public places, Hearts fans had an emotional breakdown, genuinely aggrieved that after a woeful season, they had been denied a reasonable chance of avoiding the drop. The greatest misjustice was handed out to Partick Thistle, who sat bottom of their division with a game in hand, a match they had missed by playing in a cup-tie overseen by the very authority that was now orchestrating their downfall.

So far, so emotional ... but then the politics began in earnest. To placate, the enraged Hearts chairman – the formidable Ann Budge – the SPFL conceded to launch a reconstruction steering group who would bring forward plans to reconstruct the leagues in time for the next season.

By agreeing to front the group, Budge was put in a position that breached even the lowest standards of transparency and independence. The club that had most to gain from league reconstruction was Hearts and so a very laudable idea which had been around the game for many years in different forms was tainted by perceptions of self-interest.

In an open letter to Scottish football, the Federation of Hearts Supporters Clubs have themselves emphasised that very point.

It became even more complicated when James Anderson, a well-heeled Hearts fan and fund manager with Baillie Gifford, offered to donate £2 million into Scottish football, ostensibly to pay for the cost of virus tracing. It was a generous offer but one with which Anderson’s genuine philanthropy was compromised by the perception of vested interest.

Whilst this latest drama unfolded, football on television continued but in a different shape. Broadcasters hacked together a new schedule in the absence of traditional shows and so began to run of old games from past days.

Scottish football is contaminated by nostalgia and the comforting appeal of looking backwards to glory days. As the pandemic destroyed much in its wake, including the idea of live football, many had turned to old matches on television, only to twitch into life when they realised that the game they loved was facing an existential crisis.

Whilst the ghost of football’s past dominated our screens, football’s future on television was being hastily negotiated from a position of unheralded weakness.

IT is a long-established fact that Scottish football is a poor negotiator of media deals and we have some of the worst broadcasting contracts in Europe. In an edgy game of poker, already intimidated by the rival players, Scotland nervously enters the room with a pair of threes, wholly incapable of calling Sky’s bluff and yet terrified to walk away from the table.

Short-termism is the base problem. Scottish clubs want the money now, usually to stave off financial pitfalls, and cannot imagine any media scenario which is premised on building an alternative business model.

In a previous era, during the reign of former chief executive Roger Mitchell, a new concept known as SPL TV was proposed.

In this scenario, the media rights would be owned by the league, who would then commission an arm’s length independent producer to oversee production. It was a publisher-broadcaster model already familiar at Channel 4 and in time it would have returned greater gross revenues to the clubs.

Time is something Scottish football cannot abide. It is permanently marooned in a here-and-now attitude. The haste to get payments in the bank, to settle often lurching ships, obscures any other criteria, especially thinking long term.

So it was, last week that Sky came back with a new offer. The 2020-21 Scottish Premiership season is set to start in August under national health restrictions that will prevent crowds gathering at first. The suspension of football is likely to be lifted from June 11, to enable training for SPFL Premiership first-team squads.

As part of a new deal, top-flight clubs will offer “virtual season tickets”, an idea mooted years ago in Mitchell’s blueprint. Games will be filmed behind closed doors and Sky has agreed to spread the financial settlement for the incomplete season, across the terms of a new five-year contract.

So Scottish football is tied to Sky for the next five years as its tries to make a new era work whilst paying off the debts of a season disrupted by coronavirus.

The pandemic was nobody’s fault and apportioning blame would be wrong, but the failure of the SPFL to have a contingency, a rainy-day fund or an emergency financial plan is the fault of all our clubs and the reckless economics they participate in. Fans must shoulder part of the blame too. We are all good at feeling fast and thinking slow. We all want new players and rarely think of the cost of honouring player contracts in the long term.

Scottish football is a victim of its own woeful ability to control cost, the very basis of good business.

It also has a long and dishonourable history of concealing contracts under the guise of “commercial confidentiality”, out of sight of journalists but, more importantly, beyond the scrutiny of a battalion of fans who want to understand how the game they love is funded.

Many people still question the content of the notorious “5-Way Agreement” that allowed Charles Green’s Rangers to barter their way back into the league against the rules and protocols of the time.

Others are keen to know whether the SPFL guarantees Sky a prescribed number of Celtic v Rangers fixture in a season, which in the current league configuration would be tantamount to admitting that neither club can drop out of the top six. It is, admittedly, a highly unlikely scenario, but to guarantee it in a contract would be morally questionable.

We will soon know whether Hearts are relegated, or reconstruction saves them, but whatever the outcome, more bad blood has seeped into Scottish football at a time when it needs to fight a pandemic and heal past wounds.