First published by Scottish Legal News on 20 April 2020
When Dundee United Football Club were named winners of the SPFL Championship last week it should have been cause for serious celebration. It is not every day, after all, that a club gets to claim promotion to the Premiership.
Yet as Laura McCallum, head of football administration and legal affairs at the club, explains, in reality it was something of a bittersweet victory given that the coronavirus shutdown meant the league had to be called rather than completed, and that the team had to celebrate via Zoom rather than in person.
“There are players who have never won promotion before and they have been robbed of the opportunity to celebrate with the fans and to show off the trophy,” she says.
Ms McCallum stresses that everyone at the club “very much believes that we would have won the league anyway” given the team’s points lead at the top of the table, though she notes that “our preference would always be to see out the league and win it by playing all 38 games”.
When it became clear that the lockdown meant that was not going to happen, Ms McCallum, who is the club’s sole in-houser, had to start looking at the legal implications of the other options on the table. In reality, it seemed clear that the choice was between waiting until the final games could be played or, as was ultimately decided, terminating the lower leagues and deciding club placings based on points earned to date. Despite that, Ms McCallum began preparations in the unlikely event there was another outcome: that the season as a whole was declared null and void.
“We were in a very good position because unless it was going to be null and void it was very likely that we were going to win the league,” she says. “The only thing we were concerned about was null and void, which would have meant it was like the season had never happened. I had to analyse the rules to see if that was likely but also to explore what our options would have been if it was.
“We would have been looking at judicial review, although I never really looked too much into it on the basis that I always thought it was very unlikely. It would have caused so many more issues for the league and the clubs than it would have solved.”
Having begun her career as a paralegal at Glasgow Housing Association before training at litigation specialist Irwin Mitchel, sports-mad Ms McCallum, who did an internship at Celtic Football Club while a student at Strathclyde University, had always hoped to land a role as head of legal at a Scottish football club. She believes that joining Harper Macleod, which is renowned for its sports law practice, was the first important step towards realising that ambition.
“When I finished my traineeship I went to Harper Macleod and did a mixture of personal injury, dispute resolution and, towards the end, medical negligence,” she says. “A few cases of medical negligence were in relation to football clubs and I started to get into sports law, doing work with the SPFL and other governing bodies. I knew that this was what I wanted to do and that one day I wanted to do it full-time.”
During her time at Harper Macleod, Ms McCallum was approached to become company secretary for Scottish Athletics – a role she continues to fulfil on a pro-bono basis – and at the same time moved to an in-house legal position at Lombardi Associates, an Edinburgh-based football consultancy set up by former FIFA executive Paolo Lombardi. Yet despite that job enhancing her experience in the regulatory sphere, Ms McCallum said it was not until she was on the cusp of joining a club in England that she was able to secure the role she really wanted with a Scottish team.
“I’d always wanted to be in-house at a football club and I felt I’d built up a lot of experience to do a lot of the work that clubs generally have to outsource, like brand, health and safety, regulatory,” she says.
“One of the problems with Scottish football is that the jobs don’t come up very often and when they do it’s the same people that are going around them – it’s like a washing machine.
“I was about to go to a club in England to be their company secretary when I was approached by Dundee United. Football is my primary sport – that’s the one I watch and that I’d grown up with – and the fact this job came up in Scotland was a no-brainer.”
Having called off her move south at the eleventh hour, initially Ms McCallum’s time with The Tangerines was spent advising the commercial department on the day-to-day aspects of running a club and the football department on the regulatory side, all with the added complication of how Brexit would have an impact.
“Four or five members of the team are not UK nationals and I was doing a lot of work around Brexit because of the immigration implications of that,” she explains. “At the moment we have an Argentinian player – Adrián Sporle – who has dual nationality under Germany. We could bring him in because of that but post-Brexit we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Though those issues remain live, for now her focus is taken up with advising the club as it finds ways to remain viable so that when the lockdown is lifted it can return to business as usual. As part of that Dundee United’s players and a large proportion of its staff have been put onto the UK government’s furlough scheme, which will see the taxpayer pay 80 per cent of wages up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, with the club making up the rest. Like all other businesses, Dundee United is also looking into other ways of managing its cashflow because, while it has been able to bank a share of the £1.8 million prize money paid out by the SPFL when the league ended, practically all its other sources of income have been temporarily switched off.
“We’ve been negotiating with our suppliers but the key thing for us is relationships,” Ms McCallum says. “What we have done is get on the phones to our suppliers and partners, who are in exactly the same position, to get payments deferred. We have some contracts where payments are due to us but the issue is that what we’re saying to our suppliers they will be saying to us too.
“The football industry is going to suffer as a result of coronavirus, but the beauty of the football industry is that we have a dedicated customer base in our fans. They are going to be there when they can return.”
Ms McCallum believes that, when the club and its peers emerge at the other side of the crisis, one key area that will be ripe for development is Dundee United’s women’s team, which, like the men’s side, is aiming for promotion this year. Though the squad, which is run by the club’s charity arm, is in its infancy, she says the fact that several of its members have already been called up to the national side shows it has a big contribution to make.
“I follow women’s football, I did my dissertation on inequality in the football industry and I would have played women’s football if the opportunity was there when I was young,” she says. “I’d like to see women’s football develop in Scotland, but it’s important people realise it’s not an opportunity to get fans who watch the men’s game over on a different day – it’s an opportunity to attract a whole new fanbase and new sponsors. It’s a whole new product. This is all about growth and how to drive revenues.”