Title stripping row rumbles on Was it a witch-hunt against Elgin's charismatic manager?
THE campaign to have Elgin City Football Club reinstated as 1992-93 Highland League champions continues to gather support.
In one of the most controversial chapters in the league's history, the Moray club lifted the league trophy in their centenary season 26 years ago, only to have their title taken from them.
A move by then-manager John Teasdale to bring their final league fixture at Forres Mechanics forward blew up a major storm, and resulted in a league decision to declare the entire north season null-and-void.
Long-term Elgin supporter Alex Schweitzer-Thompson used the 25th anniversary of the controversy last year to launch an online petition campaigning for the title to be reinstated, and for his club's name to appear once more in the history books beside the year which currently states 'not awarded'.
In his account below, he speaks to the solicitor first tasked with defending Elgin's case and refers to several Highland league figures from the same era who believe justice wasn't served in '93.
A high-profile Aberdeen solicitor best-known as the main lawyer for claimants in the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster may appear a seemingly-unlikely figure to back a campaign to see justice served in a Scottish football controversy that has, for more than a quarter of a century, plagued The Highland Football League and one of its most successful clubs, writes Alex Schweitzer-Thompson.
David Burnside, one of Scotland's best-respected and most experienced law practitioners, has called upon the Highland League and Scottish Football Association to "right an historic wrong" by reinstating Elgin City as 1992-93 Highland League champions - 20 years after Peterhead retained the title amid similar match-rigging allegations.
Burnside believes that natural justice would be served, and credibility partially restored to the Highland League and Elgin City, by the regional and national football authorities recognising a fans' campaign that has generated 800 signatures and retrospectively awarding the title to The Black and Whites for the season that marked the centenary of the league and the club. The 76-year-old was identified by Elgin as the man with the legal acumen to overturn the ruling that stripped them of the title, but he has revealed he was barred by governing body officials from representing the club at a Hampden hearing, meaning City were forced to attend the all-important appeal without legal representation.
Seven years before gaining entry to The Scottish Football League, the Borough Briggs club finished the 1992-93 season top of the table but were controversially stripped of the championship title as rival clubs claimed the reason Elgin requested to bring forward their final fixture at Forres Mechanics, which yielded a decisive victory, was to allow two suspended players to participate. "There is a strong feeling among some clubs that the decision against Elgin, which rendered the entire league contest null and void, was actually a witch-hunt against then-manager John Teasdale," reported The Herald (10.4.1999). Mike Hendry of Huntly, was quoted in the article as saying: "I'm pretty much convinced it was personal. I feel Elgin deserved to win the league that year. They should reinstate Elgin as champions, although I acknowledge it is a difficult situation." Another of several club officials whose views were presented in favour of the "witch-hunt" conspiracy was Buckie Thistle vice-president Raymond Cardno, who said: "From a personal point of view I feel they should reinstate Elgin's title. I can't say whether that would be my club's stance on the issue, but I think they were harshly dealt with at the time." Cardno was in June 2018 appointed president of The Highland Football League.
Teasdale, who had left his hometown of Elgin to pursue a career in England before returning home, was keen to arm the club with someone of Burnside's high profile having seen media coverage of the solicitor as the spokesman for the legal group fighting for compensation for the bereaved families of the Piper Alpha oil platform that exploded with the loss of 167 people. On making contact with Teasdale, Burnside was struck by a "very likeable, charismatic character", but, from subsequent conversations, deduced that not everyone in north football held the Elgin boss such high regard.
"Anecdotally, from talking to other sports fans, there was admiration for the way the club had played, a good swashbuckling style," recalls Burnside. "John Teasdale was a big fish in the pool having played at a grade above. I got the impression there was a bit of resentment of the club in a similar way to Rangers, when they started spending money in the 1990s, and that manifested itself when it came to the vote.
"I think that view of John Teasdale did play a part in the vote [to strip Elgin of the title]. We try to look at things fairly and, if a club has, by virtue of playing all but one of its games without complaint, won the league by a margin, it would seem unfair to take that away. I would have hoped that clubs would have said, 'Okay, what they did wasn't correct for the last game, but throughout the season they have played tremendous football.' One would have hoped that a degree of fair play would have shone through."
Despite Teasdale's courting of Burnside, the latter was ultimately unable to represent the club, meaning Elgin were denied legal representation during the Hampden appeal that followed Highland League clubs' vote to strip them of the title. Burnside felt there existed a favourable basis for Elgin to escalate the case to the highest court in the country but says the club were so "scunnered" by the whole affair that they didn't want to risk a five-figure fee to fight the ruling.
"I corresponded with the authorities and laid out what I thought was a reasonable basis," explains Burnside. "I asked if I could represent the club, and they said no. I asked why not, and they said there was no provision in the [league] rules for representation. Giving a typical lawyer’s answer, I asked if there was any provision in the rules to prevent representation. No. I said: 'Well, in that case, it would seem I can come [to a hearing] at the invitation of the board.' They said: 'If you come, you won’t be let in' - as brusque as that. I said, 'What if Elgin City were to appoint me to the board?' They said: 'No, you still can’t come, because we know that would be a sham.'
"So, I was denied the opportunity to represent the club and they had to go down there without a legal representative. The SFA have access to good lawyers; I’m not sure they were present but [the Scottish FA] would certainly have been taking advice from them. I would imagine that they would have had legal representation there. There’s a thing called natural justice which balances the rights of the parties, and natural justice, to me, had just been completely disregarded by saying to the club, facing this very severe penalty, 'No, you can’t have your legal representative there.'
"It’s not illegal [to deny legal representation to a party]; it’s contrary to natural justice, which is a somewhat nebulous concept. What we could have done is sought a judicial review, a process by which you go to The Court of Session with senior counsel. But the cost of that would have been many thousands of pounds - into five figures - and the club were just so sickened by the whole thing. I told them we were talking a cost of five figures with no guarantee of success. The Court of Session is the highest court in Scotland reviews the decision of that body to see if it was acting fairly and reasonably. I think there would have been a fair chance [of success], but the club were completely scunnered by the whole thing and didn’t want to spend even more money on an expensive, potentially unsuccessful, course of action."
Burnside could identify with the ill-feeling around the club. He is a football fan himself, having been a season ticket holder at Aberdeen since 1971, and recognised the injustice being served in a sporting context. Further weight was piled on to that argument when taking into account precedent cases of Highland clubs moving matches to accommodate suspended players, whose suspensions under the law at that time would have been set to begin on a certain date and correspond to the match or matches to take place subsequent to that date.
Ross County boss Bobby Wilson freely admitted in the Inverness Courier that he switched games to allow suspended players to play and Huntly manager Steve Paterson took similar action to enable Eddie Copeland to play in a Scottish Cup tie against Airdrie. No punishment or citation was forthcoming for Wilson or Ross County, and The Highland League, keen to see their member clubs succeed in the national cup competition, were in fact willing accomplices in rescheduling a league fixture so that Copeland could serve his ban before the Airdrie match. (Highland Football & Sport, June 1993)
"John Teasdale and the Elgin City board were obviously very distressed about the situation," said Burnside. "They'd had a fantastic season and there was a sense of injustice at the club and in the town. As a lawyer and a sports fan, I could certainly empathise with that.
"I understood from the club that there had been other instances of fixtures being moved to accommodate suspensions and the penalties having been different. I thought that would be an attack I would make if I was allowed to represent the club at Hampden, pointing out the excessiveness and lack of consistency, which is always an important argument for a lawyer to make."
An ill-fated and short-lived second appeal for Elgin to be reinstated as champions of the 1992-93 Highland League season surfaced in 1999.
It's worth reflecting here on the promise made in June 1993 by Highland League president and Peterhead stalwart Bill Campbell, writing in Highland Football & Sport: “We thought we were doing [Elgin] a favour by allowing the game at Forres to be switched to the Friday, but we were deceived about the true reasons. All I can say is that such a favour won’t be granted to anyone again, no matter how open and above board they are."
Hollow words, as not only did the Highland League allow a game to be switched again six years later (and possibly on further occasion in between), and not only did the rescheduled fixture prove favourable to Campbell's club Peterhead, the circumstances of that rescheduled fixture so closely mirrored Elgin's of 1993 that, as Peterhead went on to claim the championship title and retain it amid controversy, rival clubs called for Elgin to be retrospectively crowned 1993 champions. The aforementioned duo of Huntly chairman Hendry and Buckie boss Cardno publicly called for a review along with Rothes chairman Jim Fraser, who said: “I am behind Elgin on this. It was an unfair decision and they were treated harshly.”
The call stemmed from a similar perceived indiscretion by Peterhead in April 1999, whereby the Buchan club moved forward a match by a day, allowing Craig Yeats, with a suspension scheduled for the original date of the game, to play and score twice in an important 2-1 victory over Nairn County that teed up an ultimately successful title tilt for his team.
One school of thought suggests that Highland League administration were reluctant to bring a case against Peterhead because the league administration had been strictly instructed by the SFA in 1993 to ensure avoidance of a repeat of the Elgin City affair. In any event, the 1999 campaign to reinstate Elgin as 92-93 champions was short-lived, thrown out by the Highland League before the case could reach a vote.
Burnside sees justice best served in the case of Elgin City's rescinded championship by retrospectively reducing the punishment for their perceived crime to a fine (the club already having stumped up £1000 as part of the penalty 26 years ago) or a deduction of points relating to the match in question, with three points less still sufficient for City to be crowned champions that year.
"I think a fine, a censure, or a forfeiture of the points would have been appropriate, but the penalty seemed to be out of all proportion to the offence, particularly with these previous instances of this happening with other clubs," said Burnside.
"It reflected very badly on Scottish football. It left a bad taste in the mouth and the people of Elgin still feel bitter about it. I know there is a campaign to put that wrong right and it would be good to think that there could be an acceptance that justice wasn’t done and that the records were amended to show that Elgin won the championship in that year and the players got their medals. That would be a great outcome."
The campaign - visit it here - to reinstate Elgin City as Highland League 1992-93 champions has attracted 800 signatures.