Imaginative solutions to the enormous challenges created for football by the Covid-19 pandemic are hideously difficult to come by. Hardly surprising when the global emergency has closed down all aspects of life as we knew it.
Scottish FA president Rod Petrie has raised the possibility of one being taken on board when it comes to completing the Scottish Cup. A judgment call that could result in the Edinburgh clubs meeting at Murrayfield for the semi-final of this year’s competition, which was scheduled to take place at Hampden last month.
Petrie, pictured inset, is adamant that this season’s Scottish Cup will be played to a finish.
“There’s no pressure on time to play it out, in my view,” he said. “We can make whatever adjustments we need to the SFA regulations to have it, and better to have it much later when we are able to get a significant number of spectators into the stadium to watch it.”
In order that the semi-finals – Aberdeen and Celtic meet in the other tie – and final can be staged in front of supporters, the current social distancing rules will require to be relaxed. There is every likelihood this will not happen until 2021. This could bring Murrayfield into play for the derby last-four meeting of Hibernian and Hearts.
“We need to be open-minded enough to look at all considerations,” Petrie said of that possibility. “It may be that the risks of 50,000 people travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow is outweighed by other measures but equally we need to do it in a manner that is fundamentally safe and creates a spectacle and provides some income for the participating clubs. That’s important, too.”
Important might be considered an understatement. The desperate rush to restart football down south has little relevance for Scotland when it comes to a resumption of the game suspended indefinitely in the middle of March. Petrie is well able to articulate. He does so even without reference to the £5 million minimum that English Premier League clubs are discussing must be invested in testing of players to allow them to perform in empty stadiums to serve television deals in June and July. A sum of £5m is close to a quarter of the Scottish game’s entire revenue from broadcasting. Every game screened live in England’s top flight garners more income than that. The contrast is key to the very different route that Scottish football must take to playing games again.
“In Scotland the balance between prize money, in effect the broadcast money the SPFL receives, and gate receipts is much more heavily weighted in favour of gate receipts [than in England],” said Petrie, with the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group having created a series of sub groups to look at all aspects required to be met to have football back.
“So football as we know it needs to be played in front of a live audience. In England television revenue is a key so you can understand why they might be prepared to look at games behind closed doors as a televised event. We need to look at how you get supporters safely into a stadium.
“What is the medical environment in which you can do that? Two metre safe distancing is cheap and easy to do, but if you compromise that by trying to get people together you have to look at some form of physical protection. That costs money. How do you get the spectator safely into the stadium?
“If the supporter behind you has coughed into his hand then touched a turnstile and you touch the turnstile too that is a potential transmission point. How do you avoid these things happening, how do people get access into the concourse, access to kiosks. Those are the things groups will look at.
“How many supporters can you get into a stadium and maintain safe distancing? What are the economics? Is it worthwhile spending the money to try and do that, given the gate receipts and the television money? It will be a financial assessment to be made, whether it is viable to do that.”
A meeting with the Scottish Government’s sports minister Joe FitzPatrick on Tuesday will certainly allow the SFA to set out its thoughts on the road map to football’s return. All such outlines, though, carry no certainties because this open-ended health emergency precludes making cast-iron plans.
“I think the meeting is important as part of the dialogue with government about the steps that are required to restart the game when it is safe,” said Petrie. “We will want to make sure he understands the work that is ongoing, and that we understand the message to stay at home and to look after the NHS and make sure it is not overwhelmed in the crisis we are facing. But also that there will come a time when it is safe to restart the game and we will want to do that in an orderly manner.
“We want him to understand what we are doing and equally it would be good to hear from him what the latest view from the government in terms of the emergency footing that NHS Scotland is on. That is through until 10 June, whether it is going to continue and we will all still be facing the stay-at-home message. It would be unrealistic to expect to restart until that restriction has been lifted. That then takes us into two-metre distancing when you go out and about so it would be good to hear from the minister what his latest thoughts are on that.
“Until we get to that point where the NHS is not on emergency footing then we can’t expect our training centres to reopen and our programme of work leading to competitive football being played. There are experts who say that is about a seven-week lead-in period by the time you get the training centre open. Can you create a safe environment for coaching staff and others and then through to training, fitness, playing bounce games and getting up to a competitive footing?
“I don’t think football will be treated as a special case. We understand the joy, the impact, and the entertainment and the engagement that playing games provides for supporters. We also understand the importance of what football clubs do within their communities, in terms of help and well-being and for young people working in schools.
“Football can be a great ambassador for a healthy lifestyle and engage with the community at a whole host of levels. So it would be good for football to be up and running the way we remember it. But we have to be realistic that the way we remember it won’t happen any time soon. That can be our aim and our ambition, though, and we can identify the stepping stones that we need to hit to get there. That is a very constructive thing we can do at the moment without giving false hope that it will happen before it is safe and before it is the right time.”
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