THE statement which the SPFL released on Wednesday evening following 24 hours of “intense” discussions with their members did nothing to disguise the unease which their senior officials were clearly feeling about the winter break being brought forward.
“We have advised our clubs that any postponements increase the risk of further disruption to an already highly-congested fixture calendar,” said chief executive Neil Doncaster as the move was confirmed.
The majority of cinch Premiership clubs wanted the matches this Wednesday and Sunday pushed back to increase the chances of more than 500 fans – the limit the Scottish government placed on outdoor events for three weeks from Boxing Day due to a rising number of Covid-19 cases across the country – being allowed inside stadiums.
But you can be sure that Doncaster and his colleagues – the individuals who are charged with the unenviable task of cramming league games in amongst all of the cup ties, European showdowns and international breaks and dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic – are far from comfortable with the decision.
And no wonder. How they will cope with any call-offs is anybody’s guess. “There is no further room,” said Doncaster in an interview with Sky Sports on Thursday. “We have used the two available slots that exist.”
St Mirren had to take on Celtic at the SMiSA Stadium last Wednesday night and Rangers at Ibrox yesterday despite their squad being ravaged by Covid because they had 13 fit players, including a goalkeeper, available.
Dundee also had their appeal to have their meeting with Aberdeen at Pittodrie yesterday rejected for the same reason. They headed up the A90 with just 14 men, three of whom were goalkeepers. They were not able to make any substitutions during the course of the 90 minutes and lost 2-1.
There is no guarantee that, as the Omicron variant continues to wreak untold havoc, that all remaining 18 fixtures will go ahead as planned when action resumes on January 17. The difficulties that Hibernian experienced in October and November showed that nothing can be taken for granted.
The capital outfit had their top flight encounters with Ross County (twice) and Livingston postponed when their then manager Jack Ross was left with just eight fit outfield players. If that can happen to Hibs it can happen to any club in Scotland. The 2021/22 campaign could very easily get very messy indeed if there are any similar outbreaks going forward.
All that said, it is easy to understand why Aberdeen, Celtic, Hearts, Hibs, Dundee, Dundee United, Livingston, Motherwell, St Johnstone and St Mirren all wanted the winter break. In some respects, their stance is commendable and to be applauded.
They asked their supporters to shell out considerable sums for season tickets last term even though they were not allowed to open their turnstiles due to social distancing restrictions. Yes, they provided live streams to their matches. However, it was not much return for such a substantial outlay.
The clubs are aware that there is a limit to their fans’ benevolence at such a difficult and uncertain time and conscious that more upheaval could result in ill-feeling. They have to show they are doing everything they possibly can to get them inside grounds and by bringing the winter break forward they have done so.
Will First Minister Nicola Sturgeon agree to let tens of thousands to along to see Celtic take on Hibernian at Parkhead, Aberdeen play Rangers at Pittodrie and Hearts face St Johnstone at Tynecastle when action restarts in January 17? It is not very likely given the current climate. But at least the clubs have done what they can.
Financially, too, the switch could help clubs who are struggling to balance the books amid an unprecedented crisis a little if, say, 5,000 rather than just 500 are allowed to attend games. The repercussions of shutting the Premiership down now could prove to be dire. But there is certainly some logic behind it.
Those conspiracy theorists who have suggested that Celtic have pushed this through because it means they will not have to play Rangers with a raft of their best players missing are barking – literally in some cases – up the wrong tree.
Yes, the Parkhead club do not have their troubles to seek at the moment. Sure, they would have been without many of their key men if the second Old Firm derby of the season had taken place on January 2 as originally scheduled. But that has not been a motivating factor here.
Ange Postecoglou is likely to be without both Kyogo Furuhashi, his leading goalscorer, and Tom Rogic, arguably his best player in recent weeks, on February 2 because the pair will be away representing Japan and Australia respectively on international duty. That hardly suggests the Glasgow giants had ulterior motives.
Rangers, who were against moving the winter break, will be aggrieved when they take on Aberdeen at Pittodrie on January 18 without Joe Aribo and Leon Balogun, who will both be away at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon with Nigeria. Especially if they end up dropping points.
But they will be unable to accuse their city rivals of foul play.