For those who may not have realised that the leagues below the Premiership were kicking-off this weekend, I’ll forgive you. As I stated back in July when the fixtures were announced, I think it was hugely disrespectful to the other Scottish leagues to schedule the first Old Firm fixture on the opening weekend of all the other leagues. As anticipated, the sports news has been dominated by headlines around that one match instead of any of the others.
Instead of the positivity that should surround a season opening weekend, particularly one that many thought would never happen due a global pandemic, we have had a week of negative headlines surrounding a gaggle of idiots who might be considering bussing themselves down south simply to be able to sit in a pub for a few hours.
And to be completely clear, this will be a small minority of Old Firm fans considering this. I don’t buy in to the rhetoric that all Old Firm fans are bad, far from it. The well-behaved majority get implicated by the actions of a small minority who can’t seem to behave.
But if we put this single issue aside, this should have been a weekend where we celebrated the return of the other three out of the four professional leagues in Scotland. Thirty out of the forty-two teams are resuming competitive league football, the first of its kind since mid-March.
Many clubs - my Stenhousemuir included - had doubts that this season would ever happen. Back in March and April many of us had real concerns that our clubs could survive financially due to all matchday income being completely cut-off as a result of the complete suspension of football.
But here we are, about to start vying for league positions once again, and it should be a cause for celebration. We’ve all made it this far. We managed to absorb massive losses in income caused by no match revenue since March. We effectively dealt with tough player and staff contract negotiations that spanned two seasons. Clubs adapted to the new protocols and procedures that had to be implemented to make our clubs as Covid secure as possible and keep our people healthy and safe.
Many clubs were fleet of foot and identified ways to live-stream so that fans could still see matches whilst unjust stadium bans continue. For clubs further down the divisions, live-streaming was something that a few months ago was completely out of reach. And now? Most clubs have identified and installed this technology and are starting to deliver new online content for fans.
This new technology hasn’t been without its challenges, and clubs and the technology providers are effectively learning and testing in real time. However, we go into the first weekend without fans in the stands, but we can deliver games into fans homes as an alternative.
Whilst I believe this technology will be here to stay, we must continue to push for getting fans back into our grounds. The Government has been sympathetic regarding the financial impact on pubs and restaurants across the central belt who have been forced to close for this current two-week circuit breaker. However, no such sympathy towards the football club businesses that have been prevented from opening their doors at all for the past seven months.
As has been said before, it’s like telling pubs they can open for business but they can’t have any customers in. Businesses would simply go bust.
Whilst the financial implications are clear, there have been other consequences of having no fans in grounds that are becoming quite apparent too. Football matches at all levels have lacked their pre-pandemic intensity. Maybe that is something we’ll just need to get used to. I hope not.
There is something quite depressing about teams walking out onto the pitch in complete silence. For players at levels, they are used to feeding off the crowds, whether it’s a hundred fans or tens of thousands, the shouts, cheers, sighs and gasps add an energy to the game that the fuels and fires up the players.
Until we see fans back in our grounds, football will have a void that only they can fill. Not only will this provide a better game of football for fans in grounds, but it will enhance the live-stream product going out to supporters at home.
Like many others, I watched Scotland continue their unbeaten run as the men’s team looks to equal the efforts of their female counterparts and qualify for a major tournament. I couldn’t help but imagine how much better it would have been to have had Hampden filled to the rafters. I’ll never forget the Leigh Griffiths moments at Hampden against England. For those magic moments I stood in the stands with the Scotland faithful thinking this could be our moment.
I stood alongside my son, who has never witnessed a Scottish men’s team qualify for a major tournament. If we finally make it, it could well be a once in a generation achievement. Scotland fans deserve to be there. They deserve to be there as we fight through the qualifiers too.
As ever, there is so much at stake. This isn’t just about football, or sport. This is about businesses and jobs, it’s about once in a lifetime moments for families and fans, it’s about understanding that we’re in a fight against the virus whilst ensuring we have a vibrant society left once we get to the other side of it.
But for now, let’s get this weekend out of the way. Let’s get the new season started. Let’s all be sensible and fight for fans to get back through strong argument and solid evidence that it’s safe to do so.