Aidan Smith: Scottish football – who win, who loses? Soon it will all be inconsequential

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s eloquence over coronavirus was notable for its lack of self-interest. Picture: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via GettyLiverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s eloquence over coronavirus was notable for its lack of self-interest. Picture: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s eloquence over coronavirus was notable for its lack of self-interest. Picture: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty | 2020 Liverpool FC
I’ve got an idea. Inevitably, some people will think it controversial. Could we all just start again?

I don’t mean start season 2019-20 again – that really would be asking for trouble – but what seems to be needed is for us all to take a big breath, read what’s going down on the front pages, maybe watch one of the government’s coronavirus updates on TV… and acknowledge that the debate about what should happen to Scottish football next has begun badly.

Already we have had Rangers pluck a pair of George Young’s muckle boots from a glass cabinet in the Ibrox trophy room and wade right into the discussion with loaded language. Meanwhile Hearts, who have quickly got talking to their lawyers, have come up with a plan which they claim to be “fair” when in fact it is nothing of the sort.

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Now, no one said this would be easy. If Boris Johnson can say the wrong things under pressure then so can football chiefs. But it’s important to keep perspective. The coronavirus is the country’s biggest peacetime threat. Soon – very soon, if or rather when warnings about the potential spread come to pass – football clubs arguing over how and when the season should be concluded, who wins and who loses – will seem utterly inconsequential.

But football is important. As much as fearful bar owners and theatre bosses are currently talking up what their businesses do for social cohesion and community, football can shout just as loud, if not louder, although this is not a competition. As the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp so beautifully put it: “Football always seems like the most important of the least important things.”

But so far in Scotland we’re struggling to match Klopp’s eloquence. The other day Rangers’ managing director Stewart Robertson released the statement everyone in the game had expected to come booming out of Govan: no way could Celtic be crowned Premiership champions if the league is not completed.

Robertson at least mentioned the communality of football, only for his prose to take a darker turn. “Football brings us all together, it provides countless people with a livelihood,” he said, “and we will work to ensure no one runs roughshod over people’s lives.”

Then he added: “We will continue to maintain a watchful eye on the decisions of football’s governing bodies.

“Let me reassure the fans that we will not be found wanting in this situation.”

The Rangers faithful would be appalled if Celtic were awarded the title following an interrupted campaign, and rightly so. These are demanding fans – nothing wrong with that – but some observers will argue this can persuade Rangers officials to make overly-robust statements which seem to be playing to the gallery.

In the same way, Rangers players new to the club will make overly-robust tackles, appearing to believe they’re part of an initiation ceremony (viz Jordan Jones very quickly being sent off on his debut in the first Old Firm game of the season).

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I repeat: in this passionate football land, and in this bitter rivalry, Rangers fans would be justified in their anger at such an outcome. But what’s their solution if the league can’t be completed? Declare it void? The season being effectively wiped from the record books might satisfy them but for football integrity – which everyone bangs on about but few can resist putting self-interest first – it would be dire.

If Celtic are declared champs, Rangers will claim for evermore that, with two Old Firm clashes remaining and a game in hand, the deficit could have been reduced to four points and possibly overhauled. But look at Liverpool if 2019-20 is scrapped: 25 points clear at the top, an out-of-this-world campaign, the possibility of all six player-of-the-year nominations going to men from Anfield, the first title for 30 years tantalisingly within their grasp… and it’s snatched away. There’s tragedy and there’s tragedy (although of course there are bigger tragedies beyond sport happening right now).

But is there any of Robertson’s finger-jabbing in Klopp’s statement following football’s shutdown? The German doesn’t even mention the championship they might not win, saying: “Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all. Of course… we don’t want games or competitions suspended, but if doing so helps one individual stay healthy – just one – we do it no questions asked. If it’s a choice between football and the good of the wider society, it’s no contest. Really, it isn’t.”

In Scotland it’s just as desperate at the bottom of the Premiership, prompting equally desperate claims. Hearts would be relegated were there an abrupt ending. Perfectly understandably – owner Ann Budge doesn’t want that. Thus she’s proposed no relegation.

What about Dundee United who’re running away with the Championship? Don’t worry, two teams from the second tier can come up. This, she claims, is the “fairest way possible… I don’t think anybody suffers in that scenario.”

Really? But if the plan is being proposed because Hearts are only four points adrift and therefore could save themselves, which is true – how’s it “fair” on Dundee, the same number of points behind Inverness Caley Thistle? They are the form team in that division and would surely be confident of making up the shortfall.

Normally club bosses regard looking after their own as the most important job. I get that, but these are not normal times and better words are needed. Let’s pay heed to Klopp and also to Celtic’s Israeli, Hatem Elhamed, who spoke up the other day. “We’re ultimately a very small thing in this world,” he said of football in the wake of the crisis. But he’s trying to stay optimistic. “The coronavirus must teach us a lesson… it must improve us as human beings.”