I can’t believe that it is August already. The last five months have just disappeared. Like most people involved in football, so much of your life cycle revolves around the game. I’m sure this is the same for football at any level.
Usually, in pre-Covid times, as you book your summer holiday, you’re working out if you can avoid missing the first week of pre-season training or the first fixture. But this season is different. The holiday you booked had to be cancelled, and the furthest we’ve been is a trip to the local supermarket. The last few months have been a write-off.
The Scottish Premiership has returned, but did it feel like the first weekend of football? It all felt a little off. The pubs did their best to rally customers to the cause. Whether that was a good thing in terms of fighting this virus is a debatable point. Sky TV did their bit as the new-look coverage hit our screens. They have certainly upped their game and the hosts and pundits did a good job, despite the lack of atmosphere due to the absence of supporters in the grounds.
For fans of the three Scottish professional leagues below the Premiership, and no doubt for supporters of teams in the many leagues below that, it was a teaser for the return of more parts of the game in future weeks.
With the fixtures now out for the Championship, Leagues 1 and 2, it feels like we are in touching distance of our return. Pre-season training is due to commence at the end of this month, which will be the first football for many players since mid-March. I can’t wait to see how they cope with the dreaded fitness bleep tests!
But despite the progress in terms of getting our grounds ready, the current regime of twice-weekly testing remains a serious hurdle for us to overcome. The Scottish Government needs to consider if this is a worthwhile requirement for the lower leagues of Scottish football?
While I accept there will always be anomalies in what can unlock and what can’t, it seems that football is being held to a higher standard than other sports and other parts of society. Athletics, gymnastics, cricket and tennis are all back with no testing.
But football can only return in small groups with no contact training, otherwise we must adopt twice-weekly testing. So we have the situation where I could meet the squad in a local Stenhousemuir pub for an all-day drinking session, but we’re not allowed to meet to play football for 90 minutes.
There are other issues to consider in the part-time environment. Most players will have a second job away from football. They can’t keep themselves in a football and family-only bubble. Therefore the testing would not be as effective as it is in the full-time team set-up.
The cost of testing, around £5,000 per week, will have a huge financial impact on the resources of clubs down the divisions. Thus far, there have been only four positive tests from the thousands that have been undertaken by the Premiership clubs. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent already, to identify only four positives. At what point does the cost outweigh the benefits? There has to be a time when we decide that there needs to be a relaxation of the requirements.
It is a real worry for us. Many clubs, including my own at Stenhousemuir, have factored in limited testing to the financial model. We simply can’t afford for it to remain in place for any length of time. It shouldn’t be forgotten that football isn’t only a game, it is a business, and an important part the economy. The return of football means the return of thousands of jobs, as players and staff are taken off furlough and put back on the wage bill.
This means that clubs will be picking up all the costs associated with their businesses once again. This is despite substantially reduced income from the past five months, and no doubt for many months ahead. Adding thousands of pounds of extra cost per week on to clubs is unsustainable.
We all accept that the virus is still out there. We know about the current situation up in Aberdeen, where pubs and restaurants have been closed and the city placed back under a stricter lockdown. But give it a week and the pubs will be open once again. The Government is willing to accept the risks from this situation and deal with it accordingly if a localised outbreak happens.
They have few other options. They cannot keep the country under lock and key forever. But they need to also look at accepting the risks in other parts of society, like football. I’d argue, we offer more to our communities and the nation’s health and wellbeing than pubs do.
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