Football’s Covid Crisis: Parties, Scots & Cotts

by | Feb 23, 2021

The scriptwriters of recent Covid storylines have certainly shown imagination. Players partying like any year without a global pandemic, let alone 1999. Stories all season ‘north of the border’ supplementing the increasingly popular view that Scotland is another country. But, from the English/Welsh border, via Bristol, good news, too.

Elite footballers have long been told they can do what they like, with often horrible consequences. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to fathom why they can party-on regardless in current circumstances.

On 13th February, Leicester City Women’s top-scorer Natasha Flint hosted a party attended by nine team-mates, three of Leicester mens’ under-23 squad and, because why not with all them being there, two Birmingham City Women players.

An “extremely disappointed” Leicester fined their miscreants and tut-tutted furiously, saying the breach undermined work “to control the spread of the virus.” Still, “no other player bubbles at Leicester City have been compromised.” Not words the BBC’s Emma Sanders could have envisaged writing a year ago. Leicester’s partying under-23s were missed as their team-mates were marmalised 6-1 in last Monday’s home Premier League Two game with Manchester City. And Birmingham officials suspended their duo, reminded them “of their responsibilities and the severity of their actions” and promised an “internal investigation.”

Birmingham are ninth in the 12-team Women’s Super League, with up to four games in hand on the other 11 in a season already pock-marked with Covid-related postponements. So they should avoid relegation, especially as bottom club Bristol City’s form is scarcely better than their men’s team. Leicester top the Championship on goal difference from Durham Women, whose meeting last Sunday had been postponed, giving the players the party opportunity.

Neither Leicester nor Birmingham play competitively until next Sunday. So the suspensions will have little impact. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s Tom Garry reported that the party “annoyed” those in Leicester’s squad “who did not take part.” But it wasn’t entirely clear if they were “annoyed” because the party came “at a vital time in the season,” or because they weren’t invited.

And, in a curious footnote, “a source told Telegraph Sport” that while the party was at Flint’s house, “she had not invited anybody and most attendees had turned up while she was out.” Because of course she hadn’t and of course they did. If that was Flint’s attempt to avoid sanction, it thoroughly deservedly failed.

Speaking of ‘accidental’ parties, Fulham midfielder Terence Kongolo was the ‘victim’ of a surprise 27th birthday one when he got home from Fulham’s equally-surprise win at Everton recently. As the match ended at 9pm, the idea of holding a party for him at his home was crackpot, pandemic or not. He was videoed wearing a mask, as seen in the ever-helpful Daily Mail. And he told Fulham he hadn’t known the party was planned, as if he thought they were unsure of what ‘surprise’ parties are.

His boss Scott Parker sure sounded unsure. “In terms of Terence,” Parker said, “he didn’t know too much about it is my understanding.” And, angered into further semi-coherence, he was: “not pleased in the current climate in terms of what everyone is facing. It’s not acceptable. The people who planned it put him in a vulnerable position.” He also promised the trademark internal investigation, for which question one, “in terms of Terence,” should be “did you immediately tell everyone to go home?”

During my Trade Union days, the Government introduced a “Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union members (CROTUM) which begged the obvious question: “Is there a Scottish Crotum? And the Scotland’s Professional Football League’s (SPFL’s) different problems over the season, certainly begs the question: Is there a ‘Scottish Covid incident’?

In October, Kilmarnock and St Mirren admitted various “breaches of the SPFL’s Covid-19 Regulations,” as Covid outbreaks left them unable to fulfil various October fixtures. Motherwell had games with both postponed, as was St Mirren’s game with Hamilton. The SPFL investigated, and on 3rd December announced that all the postponed games would be registered as three-nil defeats for Kilmarnock and St Mirren. And they imposed £40,000 fines on both clubs, “suspended until 30th June 2021, pending any further breaches.”

Killie’s breaches “involved the seating arrangements on the coach and at the pre-match meal for an away game.” And “in both cases…a failure to observe physical distancing.” St Mirren also “failed to provide suitable facilities to enable players to observe physical distancing at training,” while “players had been car sharing to and from training.”

Despite their confessions, both clubs appealed within days. And the SPFL announced, on a matchday, that the three-nil defeats were thus suspended. “Perhaps a bit of brains could have been used with an announcement on Monday,” suggested Well chief executive Stephen Robinson, momentarily forgetting where he was. The appeals, to the SFA, were held on 14th January. And the three-nil defeats were scrubbed out and the suspended fines halved.

Kilmarnock had been “aggrieved” by their sanction, claiming they had followed Scottish Government social distancing guidelines, rather than SPFL ones. St Mirren boss Jim Goodwin framed his club’s breaches as “individuals (doing) things they shouldn’t have done, like car sharing.” Other players’ breaches were “all dealt with individually.” So, he thought it “only right that everybody gets treated the same,” even though not all the breaches were individual.

Inconsistencies have abounded elsewhere, with some regulations changed mid-season, seemingly unbeknownst to certain clubs.

In August, Hibernian midfielder Alex Gogic was forced to self-isolate despite confirmation that his positive test result was false. This meant he missed out on his first international call-up for Cyprus. “So disappointing,” Gogic tweeted, “especially after my follow-up tests came back negative.” And his manager, Jack Ross, struggled to control his more-than-disappointment: “Applying common sense to it, I’m struggling a wee bit. It’s maybe highlighted some flaws that might be addressed.”

Two weeks later, three Hamilton players falsely tested positive. Again, they had to self-isolate for ten days. At the time, Hamilton chairman Allan Maitland said: “We fully understand the problems encountered by other clubs and also how difficult it is to resolve them fairly and consistently.” And manager Brian Rice didn’t want the rules changed mid-season: “The precedent has been set., it happened to Gogic at Hibs and he couldn’t play. We can’t change the goalposts now.” But…Scotland.

Three weeks ago, a Dundee United player’s positive result was overturned by the NHS retest (private healthcare, eh?) which is now a Scottish football protocol. But he was available for their 5th February game with Motherwell, who said “Eh? How come?” The SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group (JRG) said the rules changed in October, when the Scottish Government set up the “Elite Sport Clinical Advisory Group.” Prior to this, the rules were just as applied to Gogic et al Now “such instances are reviewed by ESCAG on a case-by-case basis.” Nice to know…eventually.

New rules also caught Livingston out. The Daily Record ‘newspaper’ referenced a “cops probe” after Livi players were seen pre-match mealing at an Aberdeen restaurant, four hours before their 2nd February game at Pittodrie, despite Scottish restaurants only being allowed to serve take-outs. Their team bus was spotted outside a “Tony Macaroni” eatery by an interfering busy-body a concerned member of the public. Police, government and local council all revealed that they had been “made aware” of this. And the “cops probe” amounted to “enquiries to establish if any coronavirus restrictions were breached.”

The Record’s report offered a clue to the probers: “Livingston’s home stadium is the Tony Macaroni Arena.” And Livi were livid (well, they WERE). On 4th February, they expressed their “deep disappointment” about “the way this alleged Covid-19 breach has been portrayed in the media, considering we had the authorities’ written approval to use Tony Macaroni restaurants for our pre-match meals.” And they clarified their obtaining of SFA authorisation in detail. “Thus meaning, all relevant authorities were fully aware of the club using a Tony Macaroni restaurant.” Oopsie.

However: “Today, we (were told) that this will no longer be possible. We are sure this new guidance will come as quite the shock to a number of football clubs who have been utilising hotels for pre-match meals.” They promised full complicity with the new guidance but re-iterated that “we do not deem this alleged breach to be fair or warranted given we were operating under the latest written guidance and written approval we had at the time.” They thus welcomed “any investigation,” of which, surprise, we await updates. The SFA have been especially quiet. Probably busy getting their right hand to tell their left hand what it is doing.

On 4th December, it was announced that Dundee United manager Micky Mellon and his entire coaching team were forced into self-isolation after three positive tests among non-playing staff. And a club statement announced that nine players would join them, “as a precaution due to having close contact with medical staff at the HPC (High Performance Computing facility) at St Andrews (University).” Definitely a Covid variant.

Within two days, though, United were criticised for having arranged a mass team/staff photo on 27th November. Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch, told BBC Radio Scotland: “We now know that some people in that photograph were positive. So they were in their infectious period when it was taken. I was a little surprised to see 49 people in a non-distanced club photograph. That didn’t seem to be an essential part of the return of Scottish football in a safe and considered way.”

Academy coach Thomas Courts, who replaced Mellon in the Tannadice dug-out, offered the first defence. “An indication of how well the club orchestrates their protocols is that I hardly ever see the first-team players.” And Mellon emerged from isolation in equally bullish mood: “Everybody jumped on it. But that was our bubble. There were two doctors in the picture, who asked if we had followed the protocols. We were told (what) we had to do and followed that procedure. We didn’t go into that thinking ‘let’s give ourselves a right good chance of getting Covid’.”

Mellon was back in the Covid news last month. “Stupid Hugger,” screamed the, natch, Sun headline after United’s Lawrence Shankland’s pinged one in from “53 yards” against St Johnstone and was quickly submerged by nearby dug-out well-wishers, including Mellon. This coincided with English MP Julian Knight’s intellectually-misplaced concerns about goal celebrations. So, Mellon over-apologised. But Jim Goodwin provided the required voice of reason “At (setpieces) players are all over each other. There’s 22 men running by each other, so there’s constant contact. Is it going to make much of a difference if two or three lads give a guy a hug? I’m not convinced.”

Rangers’ second major problem with partying players last week momentarily threatened to develop into a season-threatener, as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon failed to hide her frustration with football for the umpteenth time.

In August, she declared that lockdown breaches by Celtic left-back Boli Bolingoli were “just not acceptable.” And she added: “Every day I ask the public to make huge sacrifices. We can’t have privileged footballers decide they’re not going to bother. So, let me put this in language that the football world will understand: consider today to be the yellow card. The next time it will be the red card, because you leave us with absolutely no choice.”

This “next time” was 2nd November, when Rangers players Jordan Jones and George Edmundson attended a party, in breach of all regulations. However, Sturgeon “chose” not to brandish a red card. Instead, her government “(commended) Rangers for taking such swift and decisive action, to protect the rest of their squad and wider public,” after the club immediately suspended the pair “pending an internal investigation.” The SFA gave the duo seven-match bans, and they are now on-loan in England.

Sturgeon was Mrs Angry from Ayrshire again at Celtic’s Dubai trip. And this mood-swing forced her to deny “that I’m in favour of or against one team or another.” She insisted: “Related ArticlesI don’t care what club it is, if you’re breaching the rules you’re in the wrong.” And her frustrations with football generally are genuine. “I tell you something,” she told us, “it takes me all my time not to stand here and use expletives whenever I have to speak about football again.”

She should be angrier about Rangers, though. Allegations emerged on 14th February that five squad players had attended what Police Scotland called “a gathering at a property in Hayburn Lane, Glasgow” and were among “ten people” who “were issued with fixed penalty notices for breaching coronavirus regulations.”

Rangers’ initial reaction was impenetrably defensive, even for a side whose march to this season’s Scottish title has been built on impenetrable defending. “Rangers are aware of an alleged incident which is subject to an internal investigation,” they tweeted. “We will make no further comment.” When Rangers eventually revealed their version of events, the media response was far more about “second chances” than “red cards.”

Indeed, the major inconsistencies here have been media-based, In August, Covid miscreancy from Bolingoli and eight Aberdeen players inspired calls for Celtic and Aberdeen to forfeit games/points. No such call for Rangers. Last summer, Mark Guidi declared on Glasgow’s Radio Clyde: “If there’s a Boli Bolingoli incident, or an Aberdeen eight incident, for me that’s points deduction.” Last week? “As long as they show remorse and realise the mistake they have made, I think they’re entitled to one more chance.” Sometimes, Scotland’s football media don’t even try to hide their allegiances.

The final Scovid incident (for now) emerged on Sunday. Graeme Stewart ran the line at Hibs/Hamilton on Saturday when he should have been…yes…self-isolating. He, David Roome and Bobby Madden officiated at the recent Panathinaikos/Olympiakos Greek Super League ‘Derby of the Eternal Enemies’ (which explains why Greek officials aren’t used but not necessarily why Scottish officials are).

Roome tested positive on his return. And Madden was withdrawn from his Sunday game. But Sunday was too late for Stewart, who was appointed despite the SFA’s head of refereeing, Crawford Allan, knowing of Roome’s condition. The SFA are, naturally, investigating their internals, and are initially suggesting an SFA/Uefa protocols mix-up, rather than an arse/elbow one. To be continued, surely.

Football’s Covid crisis may be coming to an end, despite some of its administrators (google “twohundredpercent National League” for the goriest details). There were two new positive tests in the Premier League for the third week running and only four in the Football League last week, down from 16 the week before. So, hopefully, last week’s return to football of Shrewsbury Town boss Steve Cotterill after a MONTH in Bristol Royal Infirmary with Covid, symbolises improving times.

Cotterill has been in football for EVER. When my team Kingstonian won the 1999 FA Trophy, Cotterill managed our semi-final opponents Cheltenham Town. But he took Cheltenham to the Football League weeks after Ks replicated Manchester City’s 3-1 win at Whaddon Road. Managing League One’s seventeenth-placed team isn’t the ideal rehabilitative environment. So, we wish him very well indeed.