The SPFL have rescheduled the Betfred Cup semi-finals with Hearts v Celtic moving to Murrayfield. Joel Sked looks back at what has happened so far and what could happen next.
How did this mess start?
We start on 26 September. In the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup, Aberdeen won on penalties against Hibs, Hearts saw off Motherwell, while Celtic and Rangers defeated St Johnstone and Ayr United, respectively.
The draw which followed the Parkhead side’s 1-0 win in Perth saw Celtic drawn against Hearts with Rangers pitted against Aberdeen.
The Old Firm avoiding each other in the semi-finals caused the SPFL a headache, which has evolved to become a full-blown migraine.
Why the headache?
The semi-final matches were scheduled for 27 and 28 October. However, both Celtic and Rangers have Europa League fixtures on 25 October. Brendan Rodgers’ side travel to Germany to face RB Leipzig, while Spartak Moscow are visitors to Ibrox.
Having played in Europe on the Thursday, the teams are deemed unable to play on the Saturday. This is nothing new. Teams competing in European competition on Thursday have games moved to Sunday. In the last couple of seasons both Hibs and Aberdeen have had fixtures shifted due to their involvement.
There is also a full Ladbrokes Premiership card the following midweek, including an Edinburgh derby.
On 27 September, the day after the draw, the SPFL met with the four semi-finalists in an attempt to solve the dilemma.
What was the solution?
This is where the ‘fun’ really started. It was announced, to the surprise of fans, players, management and many other stakeholders, that the semi-finals would both be played at Hampden Park on the same day.
Aberdeen v Rangers were scheduled for midday on police advice. Hearts v Celtic would take place at 7.45pm.
Why was this decision taken?
The SPFL secretary Iain Blair, in a statement, said: ““We’ve been working hard with Police Scotland and Hampden Park on contingency planning for exactly this scenario and, together, we examined every possible permutation. The crowded fixture calendar means that 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.”
The organisation stated that it was “contractually obliged to bring both semi-finals to Hampden” as per their agreement with Hampden Park Limited and that the ‘Super Sunday’ semi-final day at Hampden Park “was the only feasible outcome”.
What are the contractual obligations?
“We inherited from the SPL a contractual obligation with Hampden Park Ltd to play certain matches at the National Stadium. These include any Betfred Cup semi-final game involving Celtic or Rangers, as well as any other semi-final match where the attendance is expected to be greater than 20,000,” read a statement from the SPFL.
The organisation asked Hampden Park Ltd to be released from the obligation but the request was declined as they were “unwilling to breach this contract and risk legal action,” according to the SPFL.
Daryl Broadfoot, former head of communications at the Scottish FA, told BBC Sportsound on Monday: “This contract has been in place for about 18 years. It goes back to the days of SPL and SFL but I think there was an SPL contract that was merged with an SFL contract. There’s references to Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and matches between Ayr United and Kilmarnock... High volume matches.”
What was the reaction to the decision?
To say there was a disapproving backlash is putting it mildly. A Hearts fan created a petition calling for the schedule to be amended, warning against “carnage” in Glasgow. It has garnered more than 13,000 signatures.
Over the last week the following has been said:
• Aberdeen FC: “We appreciate the authorities have a difficult job to schedule games in what is an extremely congested calendar but to yet again ask our supporters to be in Glasgow for a 12 noon start on a Sunday is, quite frankly, appalling.”
• Hearts owner Ann Budge: “Whatever options I may have expected, I was astonished – and I was not alone in that regard – to be informed that both games would be played on the same day at Hampden. In summary, I have made my feelings clear, on behalf of Heart of Midlothian Football Club, both in person and in writing, that we do have serious concerns that the planned schedule is not in the best interest of Scottish football, the club and certainly not the supporters.”
• Hearts manager Craig Levein: “It’s the craziest thing I have ever experienced in football. How they have come to this decision is beyond belief. It’s madness, honestly. There’s so many things that could go wrong.”
• Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes: “The fact is our supporters are going to have to travel to Glasgow anyway, which is always the case when we get to semi-finals and finals, and we are well used to that. But I just feel find it really unfair and I reiterate the statement the club put out. For them to try and get there for an early kick-off just makes it all the more problematic.”
• Scotrail: “Our events team wasn’t consulted by the SPFL in advance of its announcement, which is disappointing. The SPFL has only now been in touch after the announcement. We’ll assess all options to see what, if anything, is possible in relation to additional services. But the logistical challenges this presents shouldn’t be underestimated.”
• Scottish Police Federation’s general secretary Calum Steele: “The one word that describes it best is just simply idiotic. Even if there was nothing else on that date, the police service is going to be run ragged.
• Ann Budge (again): “Almost a disaster waiting to happen.”
Meanwhile, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers raised concerns about the state of the pitch by playing two games on it in one day and said that a cut-up surface would aid Hearts.
Did SPFL react to the reaction?
A day later the organisation released a statement in the form of a Q&A, effectively doubling down on their original decision.
• Contract - “We inherited from the SPL a contractual obligation with Hampden Park Ltd to play certain matches at the National Stadium.”
• Changing dates - “We looked at every possible alternative. Doing so would have created additional fixture challenges.”
• Police Scotland - “We arrived at this decision only after lengthy and exhaustive discussions with all our stakeholders, including Police Scotland.”
• Travel - “We understand their concerns about supporters and travel complications and sympathise with fans, but this is the best solution to a logistically-challenging situation”
• Pitch - “The Hampden groundstaff have assured us that the pitch is more than capable of hosting two matches of this nature in a short timeframe, even in adverse weather conditions.”
• Fixture planning - “There are many issues which need to be factored in when producing the fixture calendar each season... It has greatly reduced our options for rearranging matches.”
So that was that?
It appeared to be that way, even after Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge vowed to push for a rethink, and it was expected that ticketing arrangements would be announced.
Then what happened?
On Tuesday, 2 October, Police Scotland intimated their desire to reopen discussions with the SPFL regarding the semi-final scheduling.
Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins said: “As a responsible organisation and taking into account these public concerns, I think it sensible to discuss the issues raised with the SPFL and other stakeholders.”
• READ MORE: Police ask to reopen talks on Betfred Cup semi-final
What did the SPFL do?
Shortly on the back of the news that Police Scotland were keen to reopen discussions the SPFL’s chief executive Neil Doncaster confirmed that they were now exploring the possibility of a change of venue for one of the semi-finals after Hampden Park Limited had “reconsidered” their original position.
Doncaster welcomed the news, stating that “everyone recognises that it would be better if we can hold these matches in separate stadia” and it would allow for more “convenient travel arrangements”.
So, to Murrayfield?
Not quite. Following the SPFL statement it was assumed that one of the semi-final fixtures would be moved to Murrayfield and played on the same day.
However, the SRU, who were keen to host football matches at BT Murrayfield, have concerns over the timescale of staging a semi-final according to the Evening News. It is believed that Scottish Rugby have sent a number of questions to the SPFL.
And if they agree?
That would mean Hearts v Celtic at Murrayfield, right? In keeping with the nature of this farce it’s not that simple.
It is understood that particular fixture is in line for a change of venue. However, Celtic have written to the SPFL to say they expect the venue to be decided by a draw.
• READ MORE: Celtic want draw to decide semi-final venues
An ideal scenario?
First of all, if there is one thing we need to learn, there is no such thing as an ideal scenario when it comes to Scottish football.
The scheduling which would make most sense would be for Hearts to face Celtic at Murrayfield with an early afternoon kickoff, while Aberdeen take on Rangers at Hampden Park later in the afternoon.
This would mean only two sets of fans are travelling. For Aberdeen supporters it gives them more leeway in making their way to and from Glasgow if they were to kickoff at 3pm or 3.30pm.
But Hearts used Murrayfield as a home ground?
That’s right. Hearts have played 10 competitive fixtures at Murrayfield in both league and European competition. Their record is as follows: 3 wins, 6 defeats and 1 draw.
Celtic too have played competitive matches at Murrayfield while Celtic Park was out of action for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Since then Celtic have played at Hampden Park 13 times. Hearts have played at Murrayfield four times.
On Wednesday, 4 October, the SPFL confirmed the rescheduling of the Betfred Cup semi-finals.
Both would still take place on Sunday, 28 October. Hearts and Celtic has been moved to Murrayfield with a 1.30pm, while Aberdeen and Rangers will play at Hampden Park with a 4.30pm kick-off.
Was everyone happy?
Ha! Fat chance. *Refer back to ‘An ideal scenario’*. This is Scottish football, if an opportunity to have a gripe is spotted it is taken.
Both Hearts and Aberdeen welcomed the decision. Celtic were unhappy that no draw had taken place to decide the venue.
Manager Brendan Rodgers raised his concerns before the club released a strong statement in which it said the SPFL’s decision to not carry out a draw was “irrational and discriminatory”.
Celtic fans were unhappy but there was a general feeling that common sense had prevailed.
And, of course, there were some amusing takes.
Is that it?
Open your phone, go to type a message, hit the emoji icon and look for the man/woman shrugging. That.
We still have the ticketing arrangements to come and, again, this is Scottish football.
With 24 days until the games take place tt would be a surprise if everything was to go smoothly. Aberdeen and Hearts will push for a 50:50 split.
It will be interesting to see how the Hearts v Celtic game is policed and segregated.