I’m not superstitious, but even I am hesitant to say that it appears things have calmed down a little within Scottish football.
This may in part be driven by the fact that clubs at most levels are now back training at least. This in itself brings a sense of some normality. At Stenhousemuir, it was good to see the first team back on the pitch with the gaffer and his coaching team putting everyone through their paces.
However, you don’t need to look far to be reminded that COVID is still out there, so we must keep tight protocols and procedures in place.
As the team are warming up on the pitch, the physio is in the tunnel area wearing PPE. Hand sanitising stations are everywhere. Players are changing in and out of their boots on the pitch or spread throughout the stand. It isn’t normal, and the Government wisely reminds us that it shouldn’t feel normal quite yet.
So this perhaps explains why things may be quieter off the pitch at the moment. Clubs are working hard to ensure that everything is as safe as it can be.
However, whilst clubs in the Premiership are able to play competitive games, all other levels below that cannot. This is because Premiership clubs are willing to pay for private COVID testing.
Until clubs at all levels adopt this standard, or until the Government allows a reduction in testing standards, then clubs below the Premiership will need to wait a bit longer.
We are all hoping that by the middle of September, the Government will allow some friendly fixtures to take place without the need to test players. This would be the prelude to testing being removed altogether by the season starting in October. As ever, it is a waiting game to see if this will happen. Therefore, we continue to have testing contingency arrangements in place should this be required. We hope we don’t need to do this as the costs are unsustainable for lower-league clubs.
However, another issue has started to emerge over the past few days as clubs start to look at their infrastructure. At present, clubs below the Premiership are not using changing-room facilities or showers. Whilst this is fine for pre-season, it might not be suitable when the season starts.
In order to provide a Covid-safe environment, there will need to be strict social distancing in place in areas such as the dressing room. Many clubs in Scottish football have facilities that were not designed for anything like this. There is very little in the way of overspill areas or additional rooms that could be used for this purpose.
What we need is some clear guidance from the football authorities and Scottish Government on what standards are expected. Will players need to maintain 2 metres distance from each other in a changing room, or would 1m be acceptable if masks were worn? What are the risks and protocols for showers? What about players needing physio treatment?
These are all practical questions that need answered so that clubs can prepare.
My own opinion is that there will be clubs that, despite the best will in the world, will not be able to meet these standards. In this scenario, rather than looking at this as a last-minute problem, we need to work together to find solutions well ahead of the season starting.
It may be that we need to revisit the idea of regional hubs, where clubs share grounds and facilities for a limited period whilst there may be restrictions in place. If this scenario enables clubs to play that otherwise were unable to, then this should be promoted as one possible solution to the problem.
With gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools reopening this month, the Government and the football authorities will be able to see what standards are in place in these types of facilities, to see what would work in football. As I’ve long argued throughout this pandemic, it is important that football isn’t held to tougher standards than any other part of society.
My worry is that football is scrutinised in a way that others aren’t, therefore the standards imposed will be tougher. There is already an early warning sign of this in Glasgow at the moment.
Due to the outbreak in Glasgow and East Renfrewshire, the Government has re-imposed some lockdown measures on the city. However, rather than focus on public venues such as pubs and restaurants, the restrictions were imposed on groups visiting other households for parties and indoor gatherings.
However, the test events that were due to be held at Ibrox and Celtic Park were both put on hold until the restrictions are lifted. Obviously the Rangers and Celtic stadia are not private homes so why impose restrictions aimed solely at domestic properties on these facilities; especially when all pubs and restaurants are able to remain open as normal?
I fully understand why the Government wishes to impose restrictions and try to get a handle on any outbreaks, but all other sectors that were timetabled to unlock restrictions were allowed to do so as planned. It was only football that was treated differently.
We can only hope that the number of infections drops, and that these test events can be added back into the calendar. Throughout this entire period, a key focus for the nation’s decision makers has been on learning from our actions.
Test events are crucial to see what works well, and what could be improved or done differently.
In the meantime, clubs will continue to train or play behind closed doors. Slow progress, but it’s crucial that progress is maintained.
• Iain McMenemy is the chairman of Stenhousemuir.
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