Scottish Football’s Covid (Head) Cases

by | Aug 10, 2020

Trying to find a usable ‘C-word’ for the last word of this piece’s title was difficult after reading the details of Aberdeen FC’s ‘Covid crisis.’ Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned/over-expectant in my dismay at eight players from a professional top-flight football club being in a bar only hours after an insipid home defeat. But the pandemic context of this particular gathering pushed it off the irresponsibility scale.

Eight Dons players are self-isolating and will miss three Scottish Premiership games, with two of the eight having tested positive for coronavirus and the others having been “in close proximity” to them. A cluster of Covid cases in the city, reportedly “linked to bars and restaurants,” led to lockdown restrictions being re-imposed when it reached 54 last Wednesday. Of course, hindsight is crystal clear. But even pre-re-lockdown, the players’ behaviour would have looked inexcusable.

Saturday’s St Johnstone/Aberdeen Premiership fixture in Perth has been re-arranged for August 20th. This accords with Scottish league football’s long-standing policy of re-staging postponed fixtures ASAP. But it is also indicative of the 2020/21 season’s tight fixture timetable, which leaves few spare dates, even without irresponsible player behaviour requiring rearrangements such as this.

Dons chairman Dave Cormack was, unsurprisingly, “very grateful” to Scotland’s Professional Football League (SPFL) for not ordering the fixture forfeited. He said his players had “undermined all the hard work that has gone into keeping our players and staff safe,” the club’s “already rigorous measures” being “forensically scrutinised” to leave “no stone unturned in ensuring that no-one is in any doubt about what must be adhered to.”

But Cormack’s critics pondered (very) aloud why there was “any doubt,” about “adhering to” not going to city bars in closely-proximitised groups of eight. This summer, Cormack cited clubs’ “distressing lack of confidence and trust” in the SPFL leadership after their handling of the Covid crisis. And he supported Rangers’ call for an independent inquiry into the resultant curtailment of last season. Given the divisions this call exposed, critics have unsurprisingly pounced on Cormack’s club’s failings here.

However, Aberdeen were not the first top-flight club to have ‘problems’ with the testing protocols which facilitated the Premiership season’s 1st August start. These had been presented to the Scottish Government on 29th May, by the SPFL/Scottish FA Covid ‘Joint Response Group’ (JRG), as a 32-page, multi-graphed “Return to Football” Strategy document. And the JRG also has questions to answer.

On 22nd July, seven St Mirren coaches tested Covid-positive, only for six of them to test negative a day later. The second tests were at an “NHS testing facility,” which led the club to undertake an “urgent review of the private testing arrangements which returned” what they assumed were “initial false positive test results.” That day, the JRG also had testing procedure questions for Rangers and Motherwell after the two sides met at Ibrox. And they also questioned Hibernian over the cancellation of their Ross County friendly on 18th July.

This flurry of questions left the JRG “poised to crack down on clubs accused of breaching Covid testing rules,” wrote the Daily Mail newspaper’s Stephen McGowan (reporting a crackdown on the merely accused exposing the identity of the paper, if not necessarily the writer). And the Daily Record ‘newspaper’ had a sensationalist take on Rangers’ situation, ‘journalist’ Keith Jackson reporting that they faced a “top-level SFA probe” because “Hampden top-brass suspect as many as nine” first-team squad members played in a (B-team) friendly without “the mandatory all-clear by medics.”

This protocol breach only emerged when Rangers’ first-team friendly that evening was delayed two hours because the test results which should have arrived before the earlier game were STILL awaited. But, being typical Scottish football journalism and, some might say, being Rangers, little was heard of top-level probes of top-brass suspicions…until Jackson reported last week that Rangers would “escape punishment” as they were ‘only’ guilty of a “misunderstanding of protocol.” And, without comment, he quoted a ‘source’ (an SFA one, presumably…he didn’t specify) saying: “Rangers should have been well aware of the rules but in the circumstances it does seem as if there was some confusion.” This was not, for once, “one rule for Rangers and one for everyone else” (if Rangers could take THIS to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Scottish football would be finished).

Motherwell and Hibs also escaped punishment. Hibs tested 24 hours before the Ross County friendly instead of the protocol-ed 48 hours and so cancelled the game. While Motherwell tested their players “more than 50 hours” before travelling to Ibrox and travelled without results because of a “24-hour lab delay.” Indeed, clubs’ private testing arrangements have often been faulty…and blamed (the JRG “accepted” that Scottish Football testing “would be outwith NHS testing for Covid-19 in Scotland”).

However, it is hard to see how Rangers’ misunderstanding/confusion over such vital protocols could arise, ESPECIALLY “in the circumstances” or go unsanctioned, especially as there was no disputing guilt and the JRG was, remember, “poised to crack down” on errant clubs. The Aberdeen players’ carelessness could arguably be traced back to the SFA/SPFL not caring enough about clubs’ pre-season laxities.

For example, the JRG said testing would be “twice-weekly” after clubs resumed full contact training on 29th June. However, McGowan reported on 22nd July that St Mirren’s test fiasco had “prompted the SFA to order top-flight clubs to RETURN to twice-weekly testing” (my emphasis). And part of Rangers’ reaction to their breaches was to “up testing to twice-a-week.”

Aberdeen’s players apologised “unreservedly” for “their huge error of judgement” in “thinking it was OK to visit a city centre venue together.” It is unclear if this was of their own volition, by club order or a response to “pretty furious” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s condemnation (“they blatantly broke the rules which, to put it mildly, is completely unacceptable”). But whatever the inspiration, their apology was unimpressive.

Apparently, “none of us could have foreseen the escalation of Covid-19 cases in the Grampian area,” they did not “deliberately attempt to flaunt or disobey government guidelines (or) the clear guidelines set out by the club” and “this was by no means a team night out portrayed.” Irrelevant claims all.

Incoherently, they claimed that “while we attempted to comply with government social distancing guidelines, we now recognise our group of eight exceeded the number of households permitted to meet up.” And it wasn’t just “a genuine error on our part as professional footballers” but one as responsible adults. AND they “let our manager down” and everybody in range, including themselves.

This UK government has frequently treated this public health crisis like a financial crisis. Hence the seemingly greater efforts to re-open money-makers, such as sport and pubs, than to ensure safe environments for school staff. And their increasing attempts to blame the public for Covid clusters, such as Aberdeen’s, show a dismaying unwillingness to accept their own, ultimate, responsibility.

However, people AND sports have responsibilities too. Massive efforts have been made to stage Test Cricket this summer, leading to the incongruity of sport in Old Trafford cricket ground’s “bio-bubble” while Manchester was otherwise in lockdown. And Scotland’s football authorities must match that for football to continue safely, whatever ‘C-word you use about certain Aberdeen players.