If you’re looking for one of those ‘sport is magical and will bounce back even stronger from this pandemic’ articles, you may wish to stop reading now. Perhaps it’s easier for supporters of clubs from Europe’s big leagues to get all misty-eyed and romantic about their football club at the minute, with most knowing it will be largely unaffected by what’s going on. At the very least, it will definitely still exist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those of us in Scotland. There are no guarantees over the long-term futures of our clubs, and already those at all levels of the game have been reduced to asking for donations to help keep them afloat. The pandemic will not be ending anytime soon and our clubs are going to be left in limbo longer than some of them are going to be able to manage.
The enormity of the situation we currently find ourselves in cannot be understated. Our own Prime Minister may disagree, but normality is still likely to be a million miles away from where we are now. Even when the virus is wrestled under some semblance of control, the effects of it and the destruction it has caused to our lives, businesses, and society, will be felt for years, maybe even decades after. We are in a truly unprecedented moment in time. In what shape the things that make up our lives come out at the other end is still largely unknown, football included.
I am not going to attempt to answer the question of how we finish the 2019-20 season. For weeks now in pubs, on forums and through social media, punters have attempted to come up with a workable solution and have been largely laughed out of town – simply because there isn’t one that will satisfy everyone involved. Someone is going to have to lose out, whether that be the denial of a title, chance at promotion lost, or the dark pit of relegation. Having supporters of clubs with two of the biggest egos in European Football involved in the discussions makes things just that bit more difficult as well.
One thing is for certain though, the season cannot restart. There are far, far too many variables with things like contracts, season tickets and broadcasting still to be worked out. UEFA’s plan to conclude seasons before the start of July to avoid many of the issues mentioned above, is pie-in-the-sky stuff. There is no timeframe for when we can begin playing football again. September had been floated around for a week or so, but given that social distancing instructions could be in place for up to a year, that now seems extremely ambitious.
Even if we did somehow return in the summer, or later in September, there’s a very real chance of a second wave of the virus hitting us even harder in the winter. Until we can become more certain about that and have more resources in place to deal with it, we can’t start letting thousands of people into football stadiums again. A decision has to be made on the current season. It can either be voided, we respect the league positions as they are currently, or we restructure the leagues entirely. These are informed decisions for our game’s higherups to make. Just as well their decision making and integrity has never been called into question before then eh?
Whenever we do eventually resume proceedings, it is likely some clubs, and even some players will no longer be part of Scottish Football. Certain clubs will simply not be able to sustain a long period without their biggest source of income, but how high up the pyramid that issue is going to go, is the real question. Players may be unable to still support their families if their wages have been reduced, or even cut off entirely. It is likely some will drop out of the game in search of other employment. That extends to media teams, coaches, catering staff, etc. We have already seen one of our biggest clubs in Hearts have to make significant cutbacks. It will not be long before the clubs below them begin seriously feeling the pinch as well.
The sheer love and generosity fans will show towards their football club in a time of need is pretty amazing. This week especially, when clubs up and down the SPFL have had to get the begging bowl out on a scale I’ve never seen before. Supporters have once again parted with their hard-earned money to try and help safeguard their club. This isn’t a short-term gap in funding that needs to be plugged though, it is indefinite. It is all well and good asking supporters to raise a certain amount and reach a specific target as some clubs have done this week – but then what? Do it all over again when the money runs out in a month? It is unsustainable, especially at a time when many supporters will have their own financial difficulties and uncertainties to contend with.
The authorities have to step in, and to be fair, have already promised an advanced release of funds to clubs to help with this tricky period. The longer this situation goes on though, the more difficult things become. Every club in Scotland will need assistance, some much more than others, and they will need to be nursed through this period quite substantially, or they will die. It is as simple as that and it’s a reality many are going to have to sit up and face much sooner than they’d like to.
Without turning this into the soppy love letter to football I promised it wouldn’t be, in a short period of time we really have begun to see the victims of our clubs no longer operating. The SPFL only stopped just over two weeks ago, and it already feels like an eternity. The freelancers with nothing to write about, the people working cash in hand for clubs every single weekend now without pay, the players sweating over their expiring contracts, heads of fitness terrified every single player will one day return overweight and so on. It affects us so much more than just Match of the Day being pulled on a Saturday Night for Mrs Brown’s Boys (which after the deaths, mass unemployment and financial crash is probably the worst thing to actually come from the virus yet).
Even when society does begin to return to some sort of normal, how much time would actually be needed before football in Scotland just got under way again? Teams are likely to be incredibly imbalanced, short of players, staff and cash and could be adjusting to playing in an entirely new division. If we do reach a point of actually being able to give a definitive date for a restart, it will have to include months of preparation beforehand, or the season would just be a complete farce before it had even begun. The lack of any concrete idea on when play can resume, coupled with the rescheduling of UEFA and International competitions means it may be years before we return to anything like the schedule we were operating on for 2019/20.
Football as we knew it just weeks ago is gone for the foreseeable. The Scottish game, at least for a while, will be quite different to what it once was and probably even more hectic. We just have to hope when a ball is eventually kicked again, that all of our clubs have actually survived to take part. It is a dire, depressing situation and one I never thought I would actually experience in my lifetime, but ultimately this is only football. In one form or another, it will still exist whatever the fate of the world might be. At the minute, bringing the virus under control and protecting the well-being of everyone in the UK is the most important thing. It would be foolish to put a date on anything returning, and until we can absolutely guarantee the safety of those attending games again, talk of where Scottish Football goes next will simply have to wait.
By Evan McFarlane (@EvanMcFarlane)