Entertainment, Sports

The SPFL risk incurring the wrath of Rangers again by bringing the winter break forward amid more Covid chaos

AS always with Covid-19 and Scottish football, there are no easy answers.

The announcement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday that coronavirus restrictions are set to be increased across the country for three weeks from Boxing Day and crowds at outdoor events will be limited to 500 people, has sent shockwaves through our national game.

Club officials are alarmed that stadium capacities will be capped at some big matches – something they know will anger and disappoint their fans and adversely affect their income – over the festive period.

Celtic, Hibernian and Motherwell have called for the three week winter break in the cinch Premiership to be brought forward and the fixtures rescheduled in the hope that supporters can attend in far larger numbers at some point down the line.

Talks are currently being held between all stakeholders and the position will become clearer in the next 24 hours.

Much depends on whether Sky Sports, the top flight’s official broadcast partner, are prepared to accommodate the request.

Sky are set to screen four games in the coming fortnight – St Johnstone v Celtic, Aberdeen v Rangers, Celtic v Rangers and Hibernian v Hearts – and could be unable or unwilling to move them back at short notice.

The scheduling of matches to satisfy the demands of television companies has long been a touchy subject with fans despite the millions of pounds they plough into the sport annually and if they refuse to yield in this instance it will not be well received.

The SPFL will be conscious of the ramifications any postponements will have on their already packed calendar. There are three full league cards in the next 13 days. Would they be confident of cramming them in to the final five months of the 2021/22 campaign amid a global pandemic?

There are Europa League, Conference League and Scottish Cup ties to factor into the equation. What if there is a spell of bad weather and games have to be called off? It would be understandable, then, if the SPFL are wary and reluctant to cede to the wishes of Celtic, Hibernian, Motherwell and others.  

What if there is no dip in the number of Covid-19 cases across the country and the new safety measures have to remain in place? What if the Omicron variant leads to a rising number of infections and they are beefed up even more? What if fans have to be locked out of stadiums altogether?

Even if the new guidelines are successful and are relaxed after the three week trial period has elapsed, are the First Minister’s medical advisers really going to sanction the return of tens of thousands of fans to grounds?

The reopening of the turnstiles is likely, as we have seen in the last two years, to be a gradual process. So what is the point of calling off games for the sake of getting another few thousand in?

The last two seasons have been devastated by coronavirus and the SPFL may be keen to avoid a repeat of any more chaos by moving the forthcoming matches. 

They rejected an appeal by St Mirren, whose squad has been ravaged by an outbreak, for their games against Celtic in Paisley tonight and Rangers at Ibrox on Boxing Day to be called off yesterday.

St Mirren could, depending on the results of PCR tests, have 13 fit outfield players and a goalkeeper available to play this evening and therefore be able to satisfy emergency SPFL rules. But is it an indication the executive will take a hardline stance?

Bringing the winter break forward and playing the impending games in mid-January may seem like a simple and logical solution. But it is far from straightforward.

Rangers, who are currently seven points clear at the top of the Premiership, have three players, Joe Aribo, Leon Balogun and Calvin Bassey, who could represent their country in the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon next month.

A change in the fixture list could theoretically mean the Scottish champions have to play against Aberdeen at Pittodrie and Celtic at Parkhead without them.

Fans of the Ibrox club were incandescent with rage when the 2019/20 season was curtailed prematurely and the title was awarded to Celtic on a points per game basis. They would storm the SPFL offices at Hampden if they were forced to go into such important outings without key men.

The SFA and SPFL Joint Response Group have had a busy few days. They have been in talks with Holyrood about clubs being compensated for any losses incurred by the Covid-19 support fund. That will help to lessen the blow if matches have to go ahead with only 500 fans in attendance. 

SFA president Rod Petrie said: “Today’s announcement is a source of disappointment to hundreds of thousands of fans across the country, for whom attending football matches during the festive season has been a tradition spanning generations.

“None the less, public health remains a priority for everyone in society as well as a responsibility for industries across the country, including football. The JRG will continue to work on their behalf to ensure compensation for lost revenue.”

The SPFL showed last year when they crowned Celtic, Dundee United, Raith Rovers and Cove Rangers champions and relegated Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer, that they are not afraid to make tough decisions. 

They will be deeply unpopular with many if they decide not to bring the winter break forward and tens of thousands of fans have to watch their heroes play in deserted stadiums at home on television. But they are hardly flavour of the month at the moment. There are no easy answers.

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