Leeann Dempster has likened the impact of coronavirus on Scottish football to a “meteor” hitting the game.
The Hibs chief executive was speaking after taking on board new responsibilities focusing on what steps are necessary for football to return later this year.
Having excused herself from the Ann Budge co-chaired Reconstruction Group, Dempster will help to find an answer to the million-dollar question – when is it realistic to expect football to return and what must be put in place for games to resume.
She has left Budge and now 13 colleagues to come up with plans to re-jig the leagues. Dempster has confirmed that the Hibs stance is an “open-minded” one regarding league reconstruction. But she believes other concerns should take precedence.
“At this time, for me, the efforts of the Scottish game should be looking at the meteor which is about to hit us,” she said. “I think this whole episode is the biggest threat the game has faced.
The Easter Road chief executive is now a member of a Joint Response Group sub-group chaired by SFA president Ian Maxwell and vice-president Mike Mulraney looking at football operations, including the welfare and training of players and re-opening stadia in preparation for competitive action returning.
At present football in this country is officially suspended until further notice and until at least 10 June. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she did not expect football to return “any time soon” at her daily briefing yesterday.
“We’re starting to challenge ourselves with what we need to be thinking about,” said Dempster. “How to get people back into our stadiums. Get them partially full or get them fully open?
“If you think about that given where we are just now with social distancing, etc, you can see where the challenge is going to present itself. And if we don’t get thinking about it now and we don’t get some practical plans in place and practical advice in place, then irrespective of what we might want, we are not going to be ready.”
In her twitter bio, Dempster writes: “I now leave politics to the politicians”. Not any longer. Dempster says the group will be guided by Holyrood and health officials in the first instance. But she argues that it’s better for Scottish football to have some involvement in these discussions rather than simply wait to be told what to do. There has to be to-and-fro. The threat to the Scottish game as we know needs to be recognised.
“The joint response group is linked directly into government and that relationship is a strong one,” she said. “The response group has fed information back to club in a timely way.
“And we’re not challenging government, we’re not challenging health officials. We need to prepare ourselves for every opportunity and every eventuality.
“We can see the impact social distancing is having not only on the virus but everybody’s lives. There are some new normals at the minute. And there will be a new normal for football. We need to figure out what that is.
“Unfortunately what’s happened is we’ve spent time focusing more on disagreements in the game. In the last week, I’ve sensed a wider desire from people – in Scotland and beyond – to share information on where we go next.
“If we sit back and wait to find out what that is, it will be whatever somebody tells us it is – as opposed to working together and agreeing on something.
“It’s not beyond the will and the wit of us, collectively, to come up with a plan that works in the best interests of everybody but allows us to do what we normally would in life. Football is one of those things.”
The First Minister discussed the prospect of closed-door games yesterday but appeared to pour cold water on the idea being implemented any time soon. Uefa has already stated that top-level football will “no doubt” be played without supporters when it returns initially. This brings its own problems, particularly in Scotland where gate revenue is so important to clubs.
“The biggest source of income is what comes through the gate – for many, many clubs,” said Dempster. “Coronavirus is making us do a lot of different and innovative things. We need to move our feet quickly, in football. As we have more conversations, we will have more ideas. Ideas on content.
“The bigger relationship with supporters is important. How we communicate to them what the next six months might look like. We need to work together to see if they’ll accept that, if we can’t get them into the stadiums – and whether we can deliver the content a different way that they find acceptable.”
Like many, Dempster is unconvinced reconstruction is the most compelling issue facing Scottish football when clubs are facing potential bankruptcy. Re-formatting the league should be done properly if at all and with a view to lasting decades as opposed to just a couple of seasons, as has been suggested.
“At this time, for me, the efforts of the Scottish game should be looking at the meteor which is about to hit us,” said Dempster.
“We are open-minded to league reconstruction,” she added. “But it would have to be a reconstruction that is progressive and looked at the opportunities in the game over the next five or ten years. Not something that is just rushed or temporary.
“We believe the biggest issue facing the game in Scotland is not reconstruction, it’s getting our whole game back up and running. The club’s position, as has been discussed at board level, is it would have to be a solution that is good for the game as a whole, is not short term – and something that could unite the game behind it. It has to be genuinely innovative and not just a quick fix for one season.”
On the chance of finishing the current campaign, Dempster said she will be “open-minded”. She explained: “If we were just to say it’s not happening, we’re not giving ourselves a chance.
“It’s going to be hard, we won’t pretend otherwise. But there is no requirement for us to be making decisions now, to call it now. We’ve got some time. It would be too quick to do so. Things are changing all the time and we need to give it every opportunity.”