Moira Gordon: Hearts and entire lower leagues punished for Premiership sins

Knee-jerk reaction from SFA/SPFL to Covid breaches has targeted innocent clubs and players
Hearts were forced to stop training by the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group after breaches of Covid protocol by Celtic and Aberdeen players.  (Mark Scates / SNS Group)Hearts were forced to stop training by the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group after breaches of Covid protocol by Celtic and Aberdeen players.  (Mark Scates / SNS Group)
Hearts were forced to stop training by the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group after breaches of Covid protocol by Celtic and Aberdeen players. (Mark Scates / SNS Group)

In the statement outlining the heavy fines meted out to his misguided players, Aberdeen owner Dave Cormack spoke of “the ongoing barrage of criticism and personal abuse from many quarters”.

Celtic’s Boli Bolingoli will, no doubt, be experiencing something similar. The nine players’ ignorance, or wilful disregard, of lockdown protocols saw matches postponed, and threatened the privileged position Premiership clubs find themselves in.

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The personal abuse is unacceptable – as is any form of bullying – but the criticism of their actions is justified and they have to accept that with the same stoicism and contrition they showed when they issued their apology and swallowed their pecuniary punishments.

After all, they are not the only ones paying a heavy cost. But they can at least look in the mirror and shoot a dirty look to one of those to blame. Others who are back kicking their heels have no such luxury. They have been punished for others’ mistakes.

It is the players outwith the top flight, along with all the football fans who have dug deep to keep the game alive, that have every right to condemn the actions of a blatant minority because they can now expect a more prolonged period of exile.

But the buck does not stop with the nine who flouted the rules, it now extends to the people in suits who, panicked by the prospect of the government sliding in with a two footed tackle, took pre-emptive action.

It was knee-jerk and was made from a position of alarm and we have all seen how months can be marred by unfairness and infighting when our football authorities use that as a starting point when making major decisions.

Lessons, though, do not seem to have been learned from the debacle of last season’s curtailment and while both the SFA and the SPFL have initiated disciplinary procedures, aimed at calling the Aberdeen eight and Bolingoli, as well as both Aberdeen and Celtic, to account for the chaos their behaviour has caused to the fixture list, and the public health dangers they posed to others, including team-mates, opponents and their extended families and social bubbles, the football authorities caught many, many innocents in the crossfire of their scattergun approach.

In attempts to appease the Scottish Government, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued the game with a yellow card and warned she would have no choice but to blow the whistle on a season that is still in its infancy should there be further transgressions, Scottish football’s coronavirus joint response group took the controversial decision to halt the return to training for clubs outwith the Premiership until at least 24 August.

That saw Hearts’ pre-season training shudder to a halt, despite the fact they had been given the go-ahead to begin their gradual integrated return two weeks ago and have complied with guidelines and consistently returned negative test results since.

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With players and staff now banned from training – ironically, Hull City were allowed to continue with their pre-season camp at Hearts’ training ground but, with the new rules in place, the Tynecastle side have been warned against circumventing them by heading south of the Border to do the same – the money thus far invested by the Gorgie club in adhering to protocols, in undergoing stipulated Covid 19 tests and in taking their players and staff out of furlough unnecessarily simply exacerbates the sense of unfairness already felt by a team who were offered little sympathy and even less financial compensation when they were demoted due to last season’s curtailment.

Some have welcomed the decision, arguing that Hearts already have an advantage, due to the size of the club and their wealth relative to others in the Championship. But, in a country with no salary caps or draft systems, and in a sport where the handicap system is not in play, is that not always the case?

The gulf between Celtic and others in the top flight is beyond vast but should Celtic be asked to return to training after every other Premiership side to try to even the playing field? Of course not. So why is it an issue now, in the Championship? Hearts were within their rights to return when they did, they broke no Covid-19 protocols, and yet they have been punished.

The football authorities blame it on the government. Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, undermined that, laying the responsibility for the decision firmly at the feet of the JRG. That in itself is a scandal. If they believe it is the right thing, why not take ownership and then try to justify it? Or, do they not feel they can and simply used lower league clubs as scapegoats in an effort to misdirect and protect the Premiership at all costs, even though it was top tier players at fault?
But while the consequences of the Aberdeen and Celtic players’ actions on Hearts has captured the headlines, they are not the only ones who have been ill-treated by the knee-jerk reaction of those in charge.

While the clubs involved in the recent scandals – Aberdeen and Celtic – continue to train and, will now, again, be allowed to play matches, it seems more than bizarre that others like Raith Rovers and Morton, who were due to return tomorrow are now left waiting until at least 24 August.

When it comes to the drip, drip effect; there are more than enough financial, physical and mental consequences to go around. From the women’s game, the lower leagues and non-league sides. All of whom have invested money they really don’t have to tackle testing and the payment of players and staff, to deep clean their grounds, provide necessary PPE and pay lets on training facilities. All those things are non-refundable but it is money they may as well have flushed down the drain.

In his statement, Dave Cormack added that “the club, like every employer, has a duty of care to its staff and we must consider the wellbeing of these players”.

But what about the wellbeing of others which is at risk due to their actions? Players from the likes of the Lowland League or women’s football for whom football has been their life, their escape and their way of combating mental health issues. They struggled to survive five months in lockdown and now, just days after training resumed and the mood lifted, they have been plunged back into lonely back garden fitness regimes.

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Why? Because footballers who are privileged to be back playing betrayed everyone else who loves the game. The chances are, a government that was already wary of the role football could play in a second wave, despite the fact they were the ones who put the opening of pubs before the return of open air sport, is likely to be even more reluctant to allow fans back into grounds after this. The fact is guidelines are likely to be even more stringent as a consequence and, in the meantime, forget the fines, it is others who are paying the higher cost.

So, while any personal abuse of those responsible is unwelcome, they deserve all the criticism they get.

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