Comment: Why SFA inaction on Covid is a dereliction of duty

Teamwork. ‘A collaborative group effort to achieve a common goal’. Responsibility. ‘A duty to deal with something or having control’. Both are important in football and in other walks of life too, of course.

Highland League Brora Rangers face a 400-mile round trip to play Camelon from the East of Scotland League tonight after the initial Scottish Cup tie on Boxing Day was abandoned. The SFA is allowing semi-pro football to continue despite the new lockdown.
Highland League Brora Rangers face a 400-mile round trip to play Camelon from the East of Scotland League tonight after the initial Scottish Cup tie on Boxing Day was abandoned. The SFA is allowing semi-pro football to continue despite the new lockdown.

The Scottish Government needs teamwork and responsibility from society at large to combat the coronavirus pandemic as it enters its most dangerous phase. That means pulling together, making sacrifices, showing leadership and determination in the face of adversity. Scottish football culture in a nutshell, you could say. Sadly, the sport’s governing body is letting the side down with its blinkered handling of this national crisis.

Sure, it will argue that there was no new instruction to stop football in the latest lockdown announced this week. Professional sport is allowed to continue, it will correctly point out. But the reality is that it has shirked its responsibility to society by failing to take decisive action.

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Schools are closed. Only two people from two households can now meet outdoors. Group exercise is banned. People are being told to stay at home and to travel for essential purposes only. As it wrestles with a fast-moving crisis, the Scottish Government needs everyone onside, not just obeying the law and following the guidelines but adhering to them in spirit and understanding their purpose. The SFA response? Let’s carry on regardless. Nothing needs to change.

Phil Johnson

Players, coaches and officials from Brora Rangers, none of whom makes a living out of football, are today being asked to take a 400-mile round trip to play Camelon in a Scottish Cup tie. Their children, however, won’t be going to school.

The NHS could do without sports injury admissions at the moment, but around 100 so-called ‘professional’ football matches scheduled for this weekend mean some are likely. Add players, coaches, club officials and match officials at an average of, say, 50 people a match, and you’ll have 5,000 people from the same number of households mixing at football grounds this weekend. With a highly infectious new strain of the virus spreading fast, Nicola Sturgeon is asking people to avoid contact with others. The SFA is not listening.

The issue at play is its liberal interpretation of the word ‘professional’. It stems from Ms Sturgeon’s announcement of restrictions on October 7. She allowed exemptions for those “involved in professional sports, for training, coaching or competing in an event”.

Given an inch, the SFA trook a mile. It gave the green light to 240 clubs to start playing matches along with the 12 Premiership teams who had been allowed to start their season in August.

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There is no mandatory testing outside of the Premiership. Yes, matches in the Championship, Leagues One and Two, Lowland League, Highland League, South of Scotland League, East of Scotland League (three divisions), West of Scotland League (three divisions) and six junior leagues are behind closed doors. Yes, there are detailed Covid safety guidelines in place and the majority of clubs will be doing all the right things. But 250 or so clubs is surely not what the Scottish Government and its scientific advisors had in mind when allowing ‘professional’ sport to continue. Especially now.

That guidance and the SFA interpretation of it has not changed this week, but the virus has.

Ms Sturgeon talked on Monday about an “extremely serious” situation due to the new, faster-spreading variant of coronavirus. The First Minister said she was “more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year” and warned that hospitals could be overwhelmed in three weeks. But when the opportunity presented itself for the SFA to take responsibility and do what it could to help, it did nothing.

Sure, Camelon’s players sign the same ‘professional’ forms as Celtic’s players. It doesn’t mean the SFA should treat them all the same. It could have been responsible and pragmatic by temporarily putting a stop to football outside of the top two leagues, but it is instead allowing 5,000 people to mix again this weekend just because they all happen to sign the same registration forms.

Outside of the Premiership, Championship, Falkirk and Partick Thistle, all the players are semi-pro or amateurs who may be serious about their football but collect pocket-money wages and have jobs like the rest of us. They generally train twice a week but don’t do it for a living.

Some will be mixing with work colleagues as well as teammates and opponents. This doesn’t chime with Ms Sturgeon’s heartfelt appeal for people to leave home only if it is “essential”.

Sport’s benefit to physical and mental wellbeing can no longer be used to justify semi-pro football continuing at this critical juncture in the coronavirus crisis. Limiting the number of matches taking place should be the priority. An argument that football lifts the national mood could perhaps be made for the Premiership and Championship. But Thornton Hibs v Nisthdale Wanderers anyone?

A handful of West of Scotland League clubs did opt out of the season in October, but the vast majority of clubs outside the SPFL’s top two leagues are playing on. They still have to cover the cost of travel, referees, player expenses, ground maintenance and more with no matchday revenue coming in, relying instead on Covid bailout grants. Many of these clubs are run by volunteers in their 60s and 70s who must now be wondering if all their efforts are really worth it. Can semi-pro football really be justified when everyone else is being told to stay at home?

It is not up to the clubs. It is the SFA’s responsibility to do the right thing. It can show leadership and a duty of care to the those involved in the game and the nation at large by pressing pause for all but elite football. Or it can continue to do nothing.

As the going gets tough for the country, the SFA has been found wanting.

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