The decision to play both Betfred Cup semi-finals at Hampden Park on the same day was described as “absolutely nonsensical” last night as politicians joined former players in voicing safety and transport fears.
The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) announced that Rangers would face Aberdeen at noon on Sunday, 28 October at the Glasgow stadium and Celtic would play Heart of Midlothian at 7:45pm that night.
The plan is the SPFL’s solution to a problem caused by both Glasgow clubs’ involvement in the Europa League on the previous Thursday night, which effectively ruled out the normal practice of spreading the games out over the weekend.
A full Ladbrokes Premiership fixture card in the subsequent midweek further reduced the options.
Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly, who introduced a bill to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, was quick to slam the SPFL move.
He said: “This is an absolutely nonsensical decision and it must be reconsidered. The idea that Hampden is equipped to cope with two 50,000 attendance games in the space of hours is bizarre. There are likely to be serious problems with transport as it takes an age to leave Hampden by public transport as it is, never mind with a hundred thousand people coming and going. Crowd safety must be paramount and the SPFL should review this with full input from the police and other bodies.”
Mr Kelly’s opinion was echoed by Andrew Bowie, Scottish Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, who said the decision takes “no account whatsoever” of the fact Aberdeen fans have to get to the game and described it a “ridiculous”.
He added: “A 12pm kick-off on a Sunday makes it nigh-on impossible for any Aberdeen supporters travelling by train to get to the match on time. The football authorities should give some consideration to the fans, for once. They pay hard-earned money to follow their team week in and week out. However, when it comes to showpiece events like this, they are treated as an after-thought. It is a disgrace.”
BT Murrayfield was tipped to stage one of the matches, but the league made the controversial choice to welcome four sets of fans to the national stadium on the same day following talks with the clubs and police. The SPFL stated that it was “contractually obliged to bring both semi-finals to Hampden”.
SPFL secretary Iain Blair stressed he and his colleagues had to find a solution that gave Celtic and Rangers the “necessary two-day gap between competitive matches”.
He said: “We’ve been working hard with police and Hampden Park on contingency planning for exactly this scenario and, together, we examined every possible permutation. The crowded fixture calendar means this is the best and most practical solution as any alternative had the knock-on effect of causing major fixture congestion, not only for Celtic and Rangers, but for several other SPFL clubs. We met with representatives of all four clubs earlier and explained that this was the only feasible outcome. The fact that both Celtic and Rangers are in Europe, and will hopefully be playing in the Europa League after the New Year, is obviously good news for Scottish football, but it does mean that our capacity for rescheduling games is significantly curtailed. We can confirm that Police Scotland have advised the Aberdeen versus Rangers game should be played first.”
Former Hearts player and BBC Scotland football pundit Allan Preston said: “We’ve got a game at quarter to eight on a Sunday night. The reaction from people I know in the game, the reaction from fans and on social media is this could potentially be one of the worst decisions that the SPFL have made. I find it ridiculous to be honest. What happens if it’s pouring with rain? What happens if the games go to extra time and penalties? How are they going to turn around the stadium – regardless there’s going to be four sets of fans in the city. It could be a volatile situation – certainly I hope not, but it could be.”
It was meanwhile announced yesterday an expert would be commissioned to review policing at football matches in Scotland.
The move was confirmed at a Scottish Police Authority meeting in response to a question about a crush at Celtic Park earlier this month, but the force later said the review was not triggered by a particular incident. One supporter was taken to hospital and four were treated at the scene after the incident before an Old Firm match on 2 September.