James Cairney: Why the discussion around Martindale’s redemption has been misguided

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James Cairney

WE got there in the end. Tuesday’s news that David Martindale, the Livingston manager who has previously served time in prison, would be free to continue his fine work at the West Lothian club after passing the Scottish FA’s fit and proper person test was warmly received throughout the nation.

For a bleeding-heart lefty like me, it felt like a little victory for someone who has more than earned a reprieve. But while common sense finally prevailing in our often-backwards game should have been a cause for celebration – after all, giving Martindale the green light was an open goal that even our game’s administrators couldn’t miss – some of the discussion around the SFA’s decision left me feeling a little uneasy.

Let me explain. I haven’t been shy about my admiration for Livi in the past, and it’s impossible to divorce Martindale’s influence from the club’s stratospheric rise over the last four-and-half years. Between the savvy additions in the transfer market and the excellent standard of coaching that’s readily apparent every matchday, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Livi’s surge up the pyramid in recent years, and he’s been a huge part of that.

Clearly, too, the effect Martindale has had on the first team since being handed the reins has been remarkable. Nine wins and two draws in 11 outings – not to mention the added bonus of a national cup final to look forward to – is the sort of form usually reserved for the Old Firm. That the 46-year-old has maintained such a run with little ol’ Livingston, a side with one of the smallest budgets in the division, is seriously impressive.

Martindale also happens to be a personable guy (at least to me, anyway) and comes across as a humble man simply trying to quietly go about his business within his chosen field. I’ve met him only once – a few weeks ago at Easter Road I bumped into him at half-time when he was there doing some scouting, and I found him to be pleasant, approachable and charming as I offered him my congratulations on landing the manager’s gig.

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We talked about his team. We talked about mine. We talked about the ecstasy of promotion; we talked about the agony of relegation. We talked about how Livi turned up over two legs to seal promotion to the Premiership via the play-offs in 2018; and we talked about how their opponents that year, Partick Thistle, didn’t. We were just two guys, talking about the sport that we love.

This is all preamble, I suppose, in an attempt to show that I like and respect Martindale – both professionally and personally. I think there’s a lot to admire about the guy. But everything I’ve just said – all of it – should have no bearing on whether or not our game’s governing body gave Martindale the thumbs up of approval.

From Livingston’s perspective, it’s certainly helpful that he happens to be very good at the job in question. That’s a big box ticked for them. The problem, though, is that while the SFA are rightly interested in the people occupying powerful positions within the game, they’re not overly concerned with how competent they are. And that’s not a criticism of Scottish football’s lawmakers – it’s simply not their job to assess a manager’s ability.

Similarly, Livingston will be pleased that their manager is friendly and courteous, and the fact that he happens to talk a good game in the media will endear him to the club’s fans. But again, it’s not relevant. There’s only one question that needs to be answered, and it’s this: at any time since his release from prison, has Martindale been charged or convicted of a criminal offence?

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If the answer is no (spoiler alert: it is) then there can be only one outcome: let the man get on with it. Thankfully, the SFA have done just that. We all know how even the most cut-and-dry cases can spiral into controversy at a moment’s notice around these parts but credit where it’s due. This was that rarest of all beasts: consensus among fans that the SFA had done the right thing. These really are unprecedented times.

We either believe in rehabilitation as a society or we don’t. Martindale was found guilty of his crimes and paid his debt to society in full through his time in prison. He hasn’t strayed outside the law since and there is zero evidence to suggest that he is anything other than a reformed and responsible citizen. And that’s all that should matter.

Even if Martindale had lost each and every game in charge, had been a bit snarky with the media and generally acted in an unpleasant fashion, he should have been granted permission to continue in the role. Why? Because there’s only one thing that matters in this instance, and it’s not his managerial ability or personality. It’s whether or not there’s any reason to believe he will bring the game into disrepute. So long as an individual has obeyed the law since regaining their liberty, they should be treated just like anyone else.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that the SFA were correct to subject Martindale to their fit and proper person test. Over the years Scottish football has had its fair share of shysters, conmen and unsavoury characters that have exploited our clubs and driven them to financial ruin. It’s right that we take precautions to prevent history repeating itself and despite criticism from some quarters that this approach was applied to Martindale’s situation, I can’t help but feel it’s better to err on the side of caution.

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What isn’t as easily explained, though, is when this test is applied. Martindale has worked at Livingston for nearly seven years and has steadily accrued more and more influence during that period. Why is it that a head of football operations (Martindale’s previous position) – a job that wields an extraordinary level of influence in the club’s day-to-day operations – can be appointed freely, but a change in job title and a few extra responsibilities results in a rigorous examination of an individual’s past? Martindale may have only recently been promoted to manager but if he was intent on doing the kind of things that the fit and proper person test is meant to prevent, he could have already done so.

There are players plying their trade throughout our country with a similarly murky past but I see this as evidence of our tolerance as a nation, of faith in our criminal justice system. I have no problem whatsoever with people who have been incarcerated making a living from the sport provided they are rehabilitated. That doesn’t mean they have to be constantly expressing their remorse or apologising for something that occurred years ago, just an acceptance that what they did was wrong and a sincere will to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Martindale has clearly demonstrated that, and that’s why he’s passed the SFA’s test. His other qualities, while impressive, were a big part of the national conversation in the days and weeks leading up to the meeting at Hampden but they shouldn’t have been, and we would do well to remember that the next time someone with a troubling past finds themselves hauled in front of our game’s administrators.

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Martindale’s success and personality made giving him the green light a no-brainer but future cases might not be so cut and dry. Next time, it might be someone you don’t particularly like nervously awaiting the SFA’s verdict, or perhaps someone you don’t rate as a manager. But we must always remember that this process isn’t a job appraisal and it definitely isn’t a popularity contest. It’s not even necessarily a measure of character.

There’s only one question that needs addressed and we must be vigilant in its application: is this person reformed? Provided the answer is yes, that’s really all there is to it.

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