I sat in the stand watching a game of football this week.
Fans will appreciate how glorious this statement is. After a six-month hiatus from the game, it felt great to be back in the ground watching a game. Unfortunately, it was just a pre-season friendly, but nonetheless, it was good to be back at Ochilview in Stenhousemuir watching an 11 v 11 game.
It did feel a little odd. The small number of club officials that were allowed to spectate under the Covid rules were spaced throughout the stand. One person for every four seats. We wore our masks for the duration of the game, and we were never inside the facility, nor did we mix with visiting club officials. But if that’s the price to pay to get football back, then so be it.
Pre-seasons friendlies are a strange affair, even in non-Covid times. The starting IX will often completely rotate to a different IX at half-time. Multiple subs will come off and on. Half a dozen trialists will be played in multiple positions. The formation will change numerous times in each half. They are nothing more than enhanced training sessions, but they are vital to preparations nonetheless.
It is an opportunity for managers to try things, and for players to get match fit. For our squad at Stenhousemuir, this was the first time they had played together in a side of 11 since mid-March as, for the last few weeks, we were reduced to training up to a maximum of 18 players. So to get an 11 v 11 under their belts was a bonus.
These are just some of the issues clubs are managing.
As we are only weeks away from the start of the Betfred Cup, it is absolutely vital that we get pre-season games played and ensure that our players are match fit and up to the high standards needed for professional football.
As we edge ever closer to the opening fixtures of the Betfred Cup, it is becoming increasingly likely that significant restrictions will remain in place due to increasing Covid transmission throughout the country. This may mean that fans will not be allowed into stadiums, and it could mean that all clubs will need to test.
Whilst all clubs went into this with their eyes open, we all took a gamble on where society would be by the start of the season, and how the loss of income from closed-door games, together with the significant cost of testing could impact our respective club finances.
It has been said many times that football without fans is nothing. The game lacks its edge, and the players that are used to feeding off the crowd are finding it difficult to find that extra something. However, football without fans also means a massive black hole in club finances. A hole that may be difficult for many clubs to plug.
If you add in a cost of £3-5,000 a week for Covid testing players, then this will push many clubs into financial ruin. It is no wonder that confidence in boardrooms is low.
One possible piece of good news emerged yesterday evening, when a letter all but confirmed that teams below the Premiership level will be able to play without the need for player testing. The idea is that the bubble we operate in would be our league of ten. This, together with tight Covid protocols should be enough to keep the competition running.
However, if Premiership clubs continue to test players, but clubs down the divisions do not have to, then the scenario that I wrote about in this column a few weeks ago where two different bubbles would collide, will become a reality.
I understand that there are some Premiership clubs who were unwilling to play a team in the upcoming Betfred Cup if they haven’t had their players tested. I can understand the concern. However, in the same Friday evening communication from Hampden, we have learned that a solution has been proposed where the lower league club will need to introduce testing in the week prior to the fixture with the Premiership club so that all players are in the same bubble and subject to the same testing regime.
This of course comes with a price tag, as the cost of testing would need to be met by the lower league team. Clubs will need to decide if this is a price worth paying. There will of course be prize money up for grabs so it will be a case of rationalising the cost of testing against the possible prize money on offer.
Each club will need to decide for themselves what they want to do, but I know that we at Stenhousemuir will be in the competition, and will meet the cost of testing. We relish the chance to play opposition higher up the divisions, and it is a price worth paying for that experience.
With the competition due to start in less than three weeks, clubs will need to make their minds up pretty quick. It’s highly unlikely that the Government will unlock or reduce restrictions anytime soon. We’re so close to getting back to competitive action, we just need to do whatever it takes to get there.
Iain McMenemy is the chairman of Stenhousemuir.
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