The off season: What next for Scottish football?

The prospect of declaring the 2019-20
Scottish football season null and 
void amid the coronavirus crisis will be strongly resisted by the game’s 
governing bodies.

A young boy enjoys a kickabout outside Parkhead yesterday.
A young boy enjoys a kickabout outside Parkhead yesterday.

The Scotsman understands that both the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish FA do not regard the withholding of the remaining silverware and still to be decided promotion-relegation issues as a credible option.

Friday’s decision by the Scottish 
FA/SPFL Joint Response Group to suspend all domestic football “until further notice” has wide-ranging and, as yet, undetermined consequences for both the sporting and financial aspects of Scottish football.

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The clear and obvious preference is to resume fixtures as soon as it is safe to do so with an extension of the season – if necessary – into June, a month now likely to be freed of the Euro 2020 finals which Uefa are tipped to postpone for a year when they convene a conference call of all 55 member nations on Tuesday.

But, with medical and scientific
advice suggesting the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK is likely to come in May or June, there is significant doubt over whether the domestic season could be completed even with an extension.

While the Scottish Cup, currently at the semi-final stage, could be held over until it was possible to conclude it next season, completing the four divisions of the SPFL is more challenging.

Another option is to finish the league campaign as it stands, awarding titles, promotions and relegations on the basis of current standings.

That will clearly prove highly contentious in many cases, most notably with the award of a ninth consecutive title to Premiership champions Celtic and the relegation of Hearts despite both issues not being mathematically guaranteed.

But there is believed to be no mood within the SPFL to countenance the alternative notion of simply writing off the season and erasing it from the honours board.

As it stands, only this weekend and next midweek’s fixtures have been formally postponed by the SPFL as the Joint Response Group continues to monitor the unpredictable development of events.

“As everyone knows, this is a fast-moving and unprecedented situation for the entire country,” said SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster, pictured. “The health and safety of fans, players and officials is absolutely paramount. We have not yet had any confirmed cases of coronavirus
amongst players in Scotland, but, given the nature of this outbreak, it seems only a matter of time.

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“We realise that many people will be bitterly disappointed, and we would obviously prefer to be in a position where we can continue as normal, but that’s neither realistic nor possible.”

Scotland’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel at Hampden on 26 March is another likely casualty of the crisis. Norway have already stated they will not play the other semi-final against Serbia in Oslo on that date, while Fifa last night recommended that “all international matches scheduled to take place in March and April should now be postponed until such time that they can take place in a safe and secure environment”.

Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell, who will participate in Tuesday’s Uefa conference call, underlined that the suspension of games applies throughout all levels of the game.

“Today’s announcement is made in the interests of public health but, equally, the health and safety of players, match officials, and staff across the game,” said Maxwell. “This is of paramount importance as the 
country enters the ‘delay’ phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is also why the Scottish FA is compelled to ensure that the suspension is cascaded through the non-professional and grassroots games until further notice.”

Uefa yesterday announced the suspension of the Champions League and Europa League, including the second leg of Rangers’ last-16 tie in the latter tournament against Bayer Leverkusen which had been slated to take place behind closed doors in Germany next Thursday.

The Ibrox club, trailing 3-1 after the first leg at home on Thursday night, backed the decisions taken by authorities at both home and abroad.

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“Rangers is disappointed but not surprised that all domestic and European football has been suspended and that our forthcoming matches against Celtic and Bayer Leverkusen have been postponed,” they said in a statement. “However,
we fully agree with the reasons behind the decisions taken by Uefa, the Scottish FA and the SPFL.

“While the club has sympathy with our vast number of supporters who have experienced a great deal of uncertainty and confusion over the last week, their health and wellbeing must take priority. We are aware of the inconvenience caused to supporters but everything that can be done to minimise the effects of coronavirus must be done and Rangers will continue to be guided by experts in the field.”

Hearts, whose position at the foot of the Premiership causes them particular anxiety in the circumstances, also expressed their approval of the steps being taken. “The club fully
supports the decision to postpone all domestic football,” they said in a statement.

“We understand this scenario 
may cause inconvenience and uncertainty amongst the fans, however the health and wellbeing of supporters, players, staff and the general public must take priority. This is an unprecedented situation and we will be working closely with the SPFL, clubs and the Scottish FA to agree the next steps.”

PFA Scotland chief executive 
Fraser Wishart, whose membership had strongly opposed the prospect of games taking place behind closed doors, offered their solidarity with the suspension.

“We welcome the sensible decision made today to postpone football in Scotland,” said Wishart. “Although this decision will have unknown ramifications for the professional game, the health and safety of everyone involved from supporters to players and other staff at clubs must be protected.

“There had been some suggestions of playing games behind closed doors, but last night I informed the SPFL of our Management Committee’s position that if the supporters are not allowed in, our members should not be asked to put their health and safety
at risk by playing games behind closed doors. Player safety must be treated the same as that of supporters and the wider population. The virus is 
transmitted via touch and bodily fluids and even behind closed doors players would have been at risk given football is a contact sport and players would come into contact with others sweat.

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“This would have been unacceptable, and I am glad the authorities considered this in their decision making. There could also have been implications for our part-time members and their daily employment.

“As the players union, our remit is to look after our members interests and employment, but we also have the good of the game at heart and will work closely with the governing bodies, government and other stakeholders over the coming weeks.

“We are entering unprecedented times and everyone in the game must work together to support clubs and safeguard jobs; not only those of our members but the many other people who work at football clubs up and down the country.”

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