Iain McMenemy: Full-time clubs may refuse to play part-time sides in Betfred Cup

Teams are coming from two different bio-secure regimes

Thursday, 20th August 2020, 7:30 am
Clashes between full and part-time clubs are common in the Betfred Cup, such as last season's game between Hibs and Elgin City. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Clashes between full and part-time clubs are common in the Betfred Cup, such as last season's game between Hibs and Elgin City. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

In my last column I raised concerns about the implications of players breaking club Covid testing protocols. Whilst the metaphorical ink was still drying on that piece, we received a communication from the Scottish FA/SPFL Coronavirus Joint Response Group to inform us that all teams below the Premiership were now being prevented from restarting training until at least 24 August. Why? Because of a couple of well reported breaches by Premiership players.

I struggled to comprehend this. I wasn’t alone. It seems that when a handful of players muck up in the Premiership, the Championship, Leagues 1 & 2 pay the price. This is Scottish football in a nutshell.

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The football authorities had been given a week to be able to demonstrate to the Government that they could get a grip on football. So the lower leagues were offered up as martyrs to the cause in order to protect the Premiership from further Government action. And they wonder why we get frustrated?

I can report that there were a lot of unhappy people in football that night. None more so I’ll bet than Ann Budge at Hearts.

They had already returned to pre-season training and were abruptly told to stop. They had applied through the proper channels, submitted the correct documentation, and had protocols in place to rival any of their former fellow clubs in the Scottish Premiership. They had formally received permission to start training. Suddenly, that permission was withdrawn. Even Professor Jason Leitch, the national clinical director who discusses all the protocols with the football authorities, was perplexed as to why Hearts had their permission withdrawn. It was just nuts. All the money they had spent on staff returning to work and Covid testing was for nothing.

But not only was the decision in itself poor, the manner in which we all found out was just as bad.

I actually found out earlier that day from a journalist. The first I knew officially was when the statement was issued to clubs and the media that afternoon. No discussion, or consultation. No pre-warning, no advice on what to do next. Just a letter telling us we were being held back from starting up.

Clubs at many different levels within the game were angry. Many of us had spent weeks trying to engage with the Scottish FA/SPFL JRG to get support and advice on starting back, only to be fobbed off at most opportunities. But here they were telling us that they were delaying our restart just in case some of us may not have everything that’s needed in place. Well maybe if they’d engaged when we had asked, they wouldn’t need to take this draconian action now.

Sadly, this is the default position of the Scottish FA. They act as regulator, judge and jury. That’s fine, because they do have that role in certain circumstances. However, they forget that the Scottish FA is a members’ organisation and they should offer help, support and guidance when appropriate too. All too often, this is the bit that is lacking.

It seems they wait until clubs fail and then step in to punish. Why not work to prevent issues before they happen? Surely this would make their life easier, as well as supporting member clubs to flourish?

Some of the questions we have been asking, repeatedly, are around the specific protocols that part-time clubs will need to adopt where it is impossible to meet the same standards as full-time clubs. For example, a full-time player is asked to stay in a club/home bubble to reduce his risk of infection. Part-time players have jobs away from football so cannot do that. So how will that work? It is clash of two different bio-secure regimes.

We think this is a legitimate question that needs answered. We’ve been asking it for six weeks but still no answer. In a call I had with a Premiership club at the weekend, it was mentioned that clubs at that level may be unwilling to face-off against part-time clubs if the two entities are operating in different bio-bubbles. This is fair enough and I wouldn’t criticise them for it. But it begs the question, what’s the plan?

With the Betfred League Cup starting on 6 October, which brings the scenario where part-time clubs will meet full-time clubs, we need those answers sooner rather than later.

My guess is that everyone is hoping that the need to test will be reduced or eliminated by that time. This is a gamble. I don’t mind joining in and awaiting the next announcement from the Government on the easing of restrictions. However, we at least need a Plan B in place should the easing not go as smoothly as we would hope.

The most frustrating part is that many of the issues that occur are foreseen. Criticise the lower leagues as much as you like for being smaller operations to their larger counterparts, but we’ve been identifying issues and trying to get answers for weeks. We don’t have the direct line to the Government to get those answers. We’re not part of the discussions that might be looking at when restrictions might ease. Therefore we need to be kept informed, and we need better coordination to ensure the necessary information flows up as well as down.

They say prevention is better than the cure and at the moment, that is how the Government is managing the whole epidemic. Perhaps the Scottish FA should take the same approach.

• Iain McMenemy is the chairman of Stenhousemuir.

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