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Scottish football is (still) at a Covid crossroads



It is ten months since Covid forced Scottish football into lockdown. After all this time we still have no fans at matches, all divisions from League One downwards have been stopped until at least the end of January and the Scottish Cup has been halted. How depressing.

And that is of course because of the even more miserable fact that Covid is still out there. Vaccination will hopefully provide a light at the end of the tunnel. But for Scottish football clubs that light cannot be reached quickly enough, and there is always the underlying fear that it will turn out that the end of said tunnel is on fire.

It is reassuring that so far none of the 42 SPFL clubs have hit the wall, and that none appear to be in imminent danger of doing so. Government grants of £500,000 to each Championship club, £150,000 to each League One club and £100,000 to each League Two club, coupled with the philanthropy of James Anderson, have been a real boon.

Meanwhile Premiership clubs can access a reasonably generous loan scheme from the government. This week Kilmarnock were the first team to confirm they'll be taking up this opportunity, admitting they expect a seven figure loss for this season. That's a huge sum of money for a club of their size and there's no reason to believe other similar-sized top flight clubs - with the exception of Motherwell, who sold David Turnbull to Celtic for megabucks - aren't in the same boat, even despite taking advantage of the furlough scheme during the spring and summer.

But that government support should mean they can weather the storm till the end of the season...as long as the season ends.

The big fear now for Premiership - and other SPFL - clubs has to be that Covid forces things to a halt again. That would mean missing out on several million pounds of TV money from Sky Sports and would therefore reduce the size of the prize money pot drastically. 

And while the top flight has managed (with a few notable exceptions) to keep going since August, the bottom line is that Covid restrictions were a lot more relaxed then than they are now. The halting of the lower divisions seems based on the not unreasonable logic that sending mostly part-time players, who may be exposed to Covid as part of their day jobs, all around the country is not especially wise; in order to continue, Championship clubs have had to start their own testing regimens. At a cost of £18,000 per month, I wonder whether a few of those teams might be quite happy to stop too; instead of paying players to play in front of no fans, they'd be able to go back to furloughing and save money.

One potential consequence of that though would be one which is also staring League One and League Two in the face: not being able to complete this season either. Whilst calling the leagues by points-per-game was pretty acceptable after playing so much of the 2019/20 season, the clubs outside the Premiership are not even halfway into a truncated twenty-seven match 2020/21 campaign. Clyde of League One and Cowdenbeath and Albion Rovers of League Two have only played eight games. Can promotion and relegation be decided if clubs can only play each other twice - or worse, if they can't even manage that? I imagine that scenario gives Ann Budge at Tynecastle sleepless nights.

League One and Two clubs have apparently sent a plan to the SPFL for restarting in the next few weeks. My cynicism is somewhat heightened by the fact that virtually no details of the plan are in the public eye aside from a commitment to testing. Given the cost of the protocols that the bigger clubs follow would surely be prohibitive (and I'm sure the Scottish Government would not look kindly on large chunks of public money being frittered away on tests) I suspect the plan advocates use of the cheaper lateral flow tests...which by any medical standard are a pretty lousy test. I would be surprised if such a scheme garnered support.

For too often it is forgotten that the welfare of football, and of the clubs, is of minor importance compared to that of society in general. For all Neil Doncaster's claims that Scottish football is too important to the economy, it was last estimated to be worth £214m a year (0.12% of GDP) and support 5700 FTE jobs; for comparison, Debenhams employed 11,000 people in Scotland alone before it's recent crisis. It could be argued - and I bet it will be by folk who aren't interested in the sport - that the government have been very generous in their support, especially given much of the value of the game and many of the jobs it supports will be focussed very much on two big Glasgow teams...and I don't mean Partick Thistle and Queen's Park.

So it is quite possible that until restrictions are eased considerably, which may be several months away, that the lower leagues will remain in stasis. Heck, if there is another outbreak at a Premiership or Championship club in the near future, despite all their protocols, one might imagine the pressure to halt those divisions becoming too great.

Ditto if there is another scandal anywhere near the level of Dubaigate. And it did not go unnoticed that in amongst a rant that will rank up there with the Jim MacLean punch and Billy Brown's Bin Places, Dun Hings as one of the most infamous Scottish football interviews of all time, Neil Lennon decided to take aim at St Johnstone and Hamilton Accies, whom he suggested had not provided Covid-friendly facilities for Celtic when they had visited.

Both clubs have strongly denied this - St Johnstone's assertion that they gave Celtic four dressing rooms suggests that Lennon's comments were mostly a combination of whataboutery and vindictiveness - but then Derek McInnes poured a bit more fuel onto this dumpster fire by saying "there are a couple of grounds where the concerns are clear right from the outset and you are a bit nervous about that next Covid test."

This is not helpful to anyone. From a public health viewpoint, if clubs had concerns they should have been raised immediately and not alluded to weeks later when any damage will have been done. For the powers that be, this innuendo just gives politicians more ammunition if they do decide to force a stoppage.

For all Lennon's ravings about a 'political' agenda, I'd say it could be argued that the government have been pretty good to Scottish football during all of this. Now the question is whether our game can be careful enough, clever enough and, I daresay, lucky enough to get out the other end of this frightful era.

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly. 

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