Coronavirus and Scottish football: Attempting to answer the big questions

Andrew Smith tries to make sense of what lies ahead for the game

Scottish football is a no-go zone.
Scottish football is a no-go zone.

Q. Now that the season has been suspended, what happens next?A. The decision taken by the SPFL/SFA Joint Response Group to close down all football activities under their auspices “until further notice” is deliberately open-ended because it is impossible to know what will follow.With the peak of the Covid-19 virus in the UK not expected for a full two months, it is inconceivable that any football will be played in that time.

Q. If there is no window to complete the SPFL 2019-20 campaign in the coming months, what would then happen?A. There are three options: the season could be ‘called’ on current standings; the season could be declared null and void, or the season could be completed at the earliest possible opportunity, even if that meant when next season was scheduled to commence in August. These will all be debated at a meeting of the Joint Response Group scheduled on Tuesday.

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Q. Which of these scenarios appear more likely? A. There appears to be no appetite for essentially scrapping this season. SFA vice-president Mike Mulraney, chairman of Alloa Athletic, called that scenario “incredibly unlikely”. SPFL board member and SFA Professional Game Board member Les Gray, who also sits on the Joint Response Group, and is vice-chairman at Hamilton Accies said there must be “winners and losers”. Gray also pointed out that, were the season to be written off, this could result in clubs being liable to return season ticket monies and forego broadcasting revenue. Three months without gate receipts in a country where these make up an average of 43 per cent of revenue could drive half of the professional teams to the financial brink. Voiding the season would appear a short-sighted solution with profound ramifications. Moreover, it would give no clarity to Scotland’s nominated representatives for the qualifiers of European competition next season.Celtic manager Neil Lennon has maintained that the fact 30 games have been played means deciding champions and clubs relegated across the four divisions now would represent an equitable solution if no other exists.Finishing the season in June – if the virus has passed its peak by then – or completing the fixtures next season instead of immediately beginning a new campaign would be fraught with difficulties.A June finish, predicated on the likely postponement of Euro 2020 for a year, could leave clubs having to re-sign players whose contracts expired on 1 June. Livingston manager Gary Holt described such a suggestion as “criminal”, while PFA Scotland chief executive Fraser Wishart has said re-signing any such players for a matter of weeks in order to finish the season in June could place any of his members so affected in an invidious position. For a month’s contract, they could be asked to risk injuries that could prejudice their ability to earn beyond this point. And that’s before taking account of the transfer window being open and any loanees being required to return to their clubs.In terms of playing this season to a finish, even as late as August – what this would do to the subsequent season; how abridged would it need to be? And what form would it take? – could prove incredibly complex and unmanageable.

Q. Have any other potential solutions been floated?A. About as many as the number of days in a year. Yesterday, it was reported there were moves afoot to scrap relegation for the season and expand the professional set-up to 44 teams, from the current 42. That would spare Hearts in the top flight and Partick Thistle in the Championship dropping down, but would not deny runaway second tier leaders Dundee United a place in the Premiership.

Q. What are the financial implications if football remains closed down until August, with no guarantees of it even then restarting?A. In a word, brutal. Inverness Caledonian Thistle held an emergency board meeting yesterday to address the potential of such losses for up to three months, with dark murmurings that administration could beckon for a host of the SPFL members. At the behest of their clubs, the SPFL holds no reserves (in contrast with the £1.5bn the monied English Premier League holds). The governing body have stated it is up to clubs to ensure they have sufficient insurance cover to mitigate this crisis, but there is debate over whether they would be covered for what has developed with the coronavirus. There has been some discussion that the authorities should seek to work with banks to establish a contingency fund that clubs could access now and then repay in the coming years. That might sound encouraging, but it should be remembered that globally all manner of businesses will be pushing for such assistance to stop going to the wall as the economic effects of the coronavirus cut deep into all areas.

Q. What will happen with Scotland’s Nations League semi-final play-off against Israel on 26 March?A. It is a non-starter, to put it bluntly. The game was a 50,000 sell-out but the SFA are set to offer refunds for all tickets bought.

Q. When will UEFA make a decision on the Nations League, the closing stages of both the current Champions League and Europa League, and the Euro 2020?A. UEFA’s executive committee will meet on Tuesday to decide how they proceed on all fronts. The noises off have suggested that all these competitions will be postponed for the remainder of this season, with the Euros moved to 2021. It is expected to be proposed that a halt is called to this season’s Champions League and Europa League.

Q. What is going to happen to the Scottish Cup?A. If there is no football for the rest of the season, then there is no potential for playing the semi-finals and final. One solution mooted is playing these three ties – and it is only three games – at the start of next season in late July, in the fashion of the old Drybrough Cup. The complication of finding three dates for the Hearts v Hibernian and Celtic v Aberdeen semi-finals is that, coronavirus permitting, Hearts and Hibernian would then be involved in the League Cup group stages. The idea that the latter competition could be suspended for a year doesn’t square with Betfred’s sponsorship and Premier Sports’ new broadcasting deal which make the tournament an important revenue-earner for smaller SPFL clubs


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