Scottish Football’s Abundance of Caution, At Last

by | Mar 15, 2020

Mercifully, an outbreak of common sense yesterday overtook the events and decisions which initially ‘inspired’ this “another bloody Murphy article moaning about Scottish football.” But, y’know, Scottish football decisions… Outbreaks of common sense spend way too much time in the slipstream of fast-moving events. And so it was with yesterday’s very eventual decision to postpone “this weekend’s and the following midweek’s” Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) fixtures.

Their latest gobsmacker was Thursday’s decision to press ahead with those fixtures, despite coronaviral ‘events.’ It merely aped the English Premier League (EPL) and Football League (EFL), announcements that English club football would be suspended until 3rd April (which were almost drowned out by the sound of cans being kicked down roads, as the pandemic will only get worse in that time). And it had a financial, rather than public health, logic which is as indicative of the world in which we live as it is of Scottish football administrators’ world of their own.

Their gobsmackery was actually Scottish-government-advised. Major sporting events worldwide were postponed, cancelled or played without crowds, in an attempt to stop the coronavirus spreading. Yet the Scottish Government was only “minded” to “advise the cancellation of mass gatherings of 500 people or more” at “the start of next week.” Because…erm…

Scottish football’s major event this weekend would have been tomorrow’s Rangers/Celtic match. This would have caused numerous “mass gatherings of 500 or more” in the bigger venues showing the match on TV and one stonking gathering of 50,000 AT the match. And bad weather might have exposed the illogic of the government advice. Because if the Ibrox pitch was waterlogged, as it was on 16th February when Rangers/Livingston was delayed for a day, then the government would suddenly have been “minded” to “advise” its “cancellation,” regardless of the relative medical situation.

The conspiracy theory quickly spread, almost virally, that the coronavirus was holding its threat to mass gatherings until Monday, so that cash-strapped Rangers would not lose matchday revenues. Because viruses can do that. Similar conspiracy-theorising accompanied the Livi game’s unusually swift restaging, against Livi’s expressed wishes for it to be delayed another day. Likewise the decision to let Rangers play their Europa League last-16 home leg against Bayer Leverkusen on Thursday behind open doors, when next Thursday’s now-postponed second leg was already due to be behind closed ones.

The SPFL had already publicly recognised the economic implications of fixture suspensions etc for many of its clubs. But that recognition only extended to warning clubs that the league doesn’t “hold reserves” and that they therefore needed “to examine their insurance arrangements.” And the original decision to stage ANY SPFL match, was fundamentally wrong. Unless the theory of ‘spreading the disease’ in crowds has far less scientific basis than we ever thought, it made no sense to hold so many “mass” weekend gatherings, especially when they would be ‘officially’ unadvisable on Monday.

There’s been lamentable sport authority tardiness elsewhere, though. The Wales/Scotland rugby match was initially given the go-ahead because “enhanced” hand-washing “facilities” (extra sinks) were available, which is the stuff of Daily Mash website articles. And English senior semi-professional football is only semi-suspended.

In their typical leadership style, the English FA’s advice was ‘it’s up to you.’ Thus, National and Northern Premier Leagues games were played, apart from cases where individual clubs have postponed games. While the Southern and Isthmian Leagues are suspended for a weekend and a midweek (cue more cans rattling down roads). But Scottish reluctance to show “an abundance of caution,” to use the current buzz phrase, seems more inspired by finance than public health worries.

Mere football issues were very mere indeed when set alongside health issues. But now that seasons are suspended and increasingly likely to be abandoned, the debate on nulling-and-voiding seasons will now rage, although less so in England, where Liverpool are all-but-mathematically-certain champions, however other issues (European places, promotion and relegation) are decided.

Celtic were unbackable favourites. However, defeat on Sunday and Rangers winning their game in hand would have left them seven points ahead with seven games left. On the other hand, Scotland’s top-flight splits after 33 games, after all teams have played each other thrice. Celtic are mathematical certainties to top the league at that stage, having played 16 home games and away games at all the other top five teams. And the 33-game fixture list would possess no less sporting integrity than the fcuked-up fixture list necessitated by the split, however other issues are decided.

And the PR battle which seems likely to decide the title has already begun. Some predictably dim Scottish football journalism kicked things off when freelancer Derek Clark tweeted to “those suggesting Celtic be awarded the title if coronavirus causes the league to finish early,” that “the last time the league was abandoned was 1939/40 when Rangers led the way. No trophies were handed out. I doubt it’ll happen this time around.”

One assumes he was trolling, as 1939 would have got any midway decent hack or even keyboard warrior checking how many games were played, given the 3rd September outbreak of the ‘health scare’ which mutated into World War Two. And indeed, such a cursory glance at history (well… Google) revealed that 1939/40 lasted five games, with Rangers one point clear of Falkirk atop the table. We are 78% of the way through the current season.

A more direct and recent precedent is Chile… last year. Their top three divisions ended early amid student protests-turned-riots which meant public safety “in and around” football stadia could not be guaranteed. The Primera Division title was awarded to Universidad Catolica, who were 13 points clear with just over 80% of the season played.

Only six of the three divisions’ presidents voted against this award, including Catolica’s own chief, Juan Tagle, who nonetheless hoped for universal recognition “that we are legitimate champions” (no record of him offering to give the title back, mind). The accompanying decision to temporarily dispense with relegation and promotion was more contentious (and, of course, Universidad CATOLICA being handed the title was simply evidence of the worldwide papal conspiracy)…

Meanwhile, back at the moral cesspit of Scottish football journalism, Celtic boss Neil Lennon’s declaration that, having played “well over two-thirds of the season,” Celtic “should be declared champions” was dismissed as “one-eyed nonsense” by BBC Scotland’s Tom English, whose otherwise considerable journalistic skills so often desert him at such moments. “It will get completed. If it doesn’t, the season is voided,” English declared, as if referencing actual rules, rather than blasting a personal opinion on his “personal” twitter account.

As it happens, SPFL and Scottish FA rules, for all their length and complexity, are silent on nullifying and voiding seasons. The SPFL rulebook states that the “season” ends “on the date of the last league match, or otherwise as determined by the board.” There is no set criteria for that determination. Not even the at-first-glance clear argument that voiding the season would deny European places to Scottish clubs. That is nuanced by the near-certainty of football being unsafe to resume when next year’s competitions are due to start, a daft 24 DAYS after this year’s now-suspended competitions are due to finish.

But opinions on that determination are predictably partisan. Celts want the top-flight title because of course they do (nine-in-a-row, and all that)…and because, until this week, there was a general consensus that the title ‘race’ was over. Rangers fans probably wish the season was voided after they won at Celtic in December. And many who have flooded social media in recent weeks with variants on “the title race is over” now ‘believe’ nothing of the sort (nine-in-a-row, and all that).

Hearts fans surely wouldn’t mind the season asterisked from history. Dundee United fans want the Championship title, as they are even further ahead in that ‘race’ than Celtic are in the Premiership, with the rest of the division currently needing snookers. And, as SKY TV’s Kris Boyd said yesterday: “Nobody wants to go and watch their team behind closed doors” (I know what he meant, but still… 😊 ).

Last night, US comedian and political talkshow host Bill Maher put it best: “Are we being overly-cautious? Yes, but appropriately so. We don’t really know what this is yet.” And Scotland’s football authorities were belatedly appropriately overly-cautious yesterday. But whatever decisions they now take about football will probably BE wrong. Because, y’know, Scottish football decisions.