Farmer boy Rod Petrie on why he feared for Scottish football clubs in pandemic and his own personal health battle
Rod Petrie stood up and performed what he once feared might be a quick head count.
There were 42 clubs in the top tiers of Scottish football when the pandemic hit 16 months ago. Mercifully, 42 clubs are still with us at the start of a second full season in this Covid-era, although Brechin City, while still in existence, have been replaced by Kelty Hearts in League Two.
This full complement was something worth celebrating at the latest Scottish Football Association AGM, which took place at Hampden on Tuesday.
Although club officials were not all gathered around a table, as would have been the case in former times, some were. Others dialled in on Zoom. All were permitted to utter a small prayer of thanks for having been preserved.
It is not by any stretch of the imagination the end of the struggle. In fact, it might only be the beginning. Of course, the SFA bear a responsibility for more than just the top four divisions. It was, however, those larger clubs with higher overheads who were generally felt to be most in danger. But no club, great or small, old or new, has gone out of business to date.
Petrie admitted he shared people’s fears about likely casualties as he made the immense decision to enforce a Scottish football shutdown in March last year following high-level, urgent discussions. The former Hibs chairman only succeeded Alan McRae as SFA president the previous June.
“There was a lot of noise about that at the time, around March and April last year,” Petrie recalled. “We had to suspend the game on March 13 to go into lockdown. That's not really what you want to do as SFA president in your first year in office – shut down the whole of Scottish football.
“Was that a lot of pressure on me? It's just what happened, it's what everyone had to deal with.
“We've all had to face up to challenges, but we have some fantastic people at the SFA. I had to take some difficult decisions along the way. It's a source of considerable satisfaction that all of the clubs have made it through and are now looking forward to the new season in front of supporters.”
With stadiums now slowly getting fuller, some sense of normality is settling over Scottish football again. Local authorities are liaising with clubs to ensure the numbers of supporters being permitted access keeps going in the right direction. Teams will run out with cheers ringing in their ears at the majority of games next weekend as league action in the top four divisions kicks-off again.
An unprecedented time of turmoil has seen many clubs re-assert themselves in their community and become conduits for social care. Petrie underlined the role of both the SFA and SPFL in taking care of clubs while also recognising the Scottish government’s input during the pandemic.
“When it hit 16 months ago, one of the things we wanted to ensure was that every club in Scotland made it through,” he said. “There was great uncertainty about just what the financial impact would be.
“It was good to be able to acknowledge at the AGM that every club had made it through and was able to attend. That's been through financial prudence at the SFA and financial support from FIFA and other steps we took.
“The SPFL and ourselves advanced money earlier to clubs than otherwise would have been the case. I thank the Scottish Government for providing £30 million of financial support - not just loans to top clubs but grants all the way down the financial pyramid.
“That came out of detailed discussions and a co-operative working relationship with those in Government, to show the need that football had – and how important the sport is to the communities it sustains. Also, it provides encouragement, entertainment and lifts the spirits of people at a time when we had to deal with lockdown and other restrictions in our lives.”
There was another blessing to acknowledge. Someone else had made it through a period of considerable concern. Shortly after announcing Scottish football’s temporary closure, Petrie himself stepped down temporarily due to a still unspecified illness. The president left matters in the hands of Mike Mulraney, his second-in-command.
Happily, Petrie is back in situ. He is characteristically vague when referring to this spell away from the firing line. He notes only that it’s fortunate to have been imbued with resilience after growing up on a farm in the north-east of Scotland. Even this sliver of personal detail is a reminder that for someone who has run one of Scotland’s biggest clubs and now helps oversee Scottish football, precious little is known about Petrie. The news he grew up on a farm itself seems revelatory.
“Everyone tells me I'm looking good so that's great news!” said Petrie. “It's been a challenging 12-months job-wise and personally.
“If you don't mind, I don't want to go into the details of it. I'm feeling good. I've come through quite a lot over the period. I had to take a month out which caused me to miss last year's AGM. Mike was fantastic. I'm now back working every day in this new, virtual environment with Zoom meetings. I think my colleagues would say I've done my fair share.”
He had not considered stepping down completely. “No, I'm someone who works hard," he said. "I think people would always say that about me.
“I've got a pretty robust constitution having been brought up in a working environment on a farm. I've got a degree of resilience about me.
"If I'm not able to do the job, I'll be the first guy to stand aside and let people get on with it.
"I'm delighted to be here. I'm looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers in September. I'm focused on what needs to be done during my next two years in office.”
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