AFTER almost five months since a competitive game took place in Scotland, the waiting is nearly over with the big kick off in the Premiership twelve days away. Although, for the time being, games will be played behind closed doors, it will be a relief for the players at least to get back to their day job since COVID-19 brought our game to a halt on 13 March.
Whilst it’s great that our top flight players are getting back into action, the demands of the upcoming season presents a lot of challenges for our game that will be a strain on the players physically and mentally.
For example, Rangers have the second leg of last seasons Europa League last 16 round against Bayer Leverkusen to overcome. Should they defy the odds by overturning a 3-1 deficit in Germany, they will then go back to Germany for the remainder of the tournament from 10 August until 21 August if they go all the way. They will then, along with Motherwell and Aberdeen, go into the upcoming seasons First Qualifying round on 27 August with the potential of three more Qualifying rounds to get into the Group stages in October. Whilst the Qualifying rounds this time are one-off ties rather than the traditional two-legged affairs, that’s still a lot to cram in over the next couple of months for all three sides, but potentially could be more difficult for Rangers should they overcome Leverkusen. Of course, their hopes of going all the way in the 19/20 competition are difficult given their deficit to a Leverkusen side who have been playing competitively since their restart in May whilst Rangers will only have had the opening day against Aberdeen going into that game, but you never know in football.
Celtic also face the prospect of playing two or three games per week depending on their progress in the Champions League. They are due to play their first qualifying round tie on 18 or 19 August, days after the Quarter Finals of the 19/20 competition have been completed, and will have one-off ties for three Qualifying rounds before a two-legged affair for the Playoff round. Should they be fortunate enough to make it into the Group Stages for the first time since the 17/18 season, they will then be scheduled to play their group stage matches on three consecutive midweeks either side of the International break in November, which is also the case for any of the three Europa League representatives. Whilst the one-off ties in qualifying may be less daunting than the traditional two-legged affairs in July, it will still be a strain mentally and physically for all four clubs after five months without competitive action and having not had contact training until early July!
Then there’s the Betfred League Cup. Normally by this time, we’d be midway through the group stages as teams use the competition as a platform for pre-season as much as progression to the knockout stages. However, with the Championship, League One and League Two campaigns not kicking off until 17 October, the SPFL have confirmed that the group stages will now kick off on 6 October, with the five match days falling over the International breaks that month and November. This presents a couple of problems. Firstly, it adds more fixtures for the top flight sides at a period where a break would be more welcome. Secondly, some clubs might lose players to International duty, for example Declan Gallagher might become unavailable for Motherwell if he makes the Scotland squad for the playoffs and Nations League matches (which I’ll come onto later). Also, for the non-top flight clubs, they will be going into the competition with no competitive games under their belt, reducing the chances of upsetting the big guns who will be two months into Premiership action.
What the League also confirmed was that all 42 clubs, despite being given the option to withdraw, will take place in the competition. There is an argument that the League Cup, for one season, could’ve reverted to the straight knockout format rather than add to the fixture congestion. Whilst a new TV contract with Premier Sports is in place, and that might present difficulties given that Premier have included 12 to 16 live matches within their deal, it could be argued that negotiations could’ve brought a change given that this season is not going to be an ordinary season as a result of the pandemic. Clubs have signed up for various reasons, primarily the fact that the competition will give them much needed income after many months of uncertainty, but there’s also a big risk that games will still be played behind closed doors as there is no guarantee that the Scottish government, rightly or wrongly, will ease the restrictions on large gatherings at live events by then. Given that the Championship and Leagues One and Two have reduced their campaigns by nine matches as a result of this restriction, it seems that the timing of the Betfred Cup schedule is more in hope than expectation that much needed revenue from the gates will be in place.
At least we know the dates for one of the two major Cup competitions. Last seasons Scottish Cup is still to be concluded, with the Semi Finals between Hearts and Hibs then Celtic and Aberdeen on hold. The SFA have insisted that those ties get fulfilled and in front of crowds. But when are we going to fit these ties in? We could end up with a scenario where the four clubs are contesting last seasons Scottish Cup slap-bang in the middle of this seasons competition. It’s just crazy! Then there’s last seasons Challenge Cup Final between Inverness and Raith Rovers to be contested as well as this campaign. No date has been pencilled in for that nor for this season’s tournament, which was already congested with the inclusion of colt teams and sides from Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and the English National League. Is it feasible for that to continue this season? There have been suggestions that the tournament isn’t the most cost effective, with some complaining that the expenditure for travelling down south is more than the rewards for getting through the tie, so maybe the SPFL may need to consider cancelling the 2020/21 competition.
Domestically, the fixture list is going to be heavily congested. For players lucky enough to earn International recognition, there is pretty much no room for a break. Scotland have a guaranteed seven matches to fulfil in the September, October and November international calendar, with an eighth in store should we beat Israel in the first Euro 2020 playoff Semi Final. Then there’s the World Cup qualifying campaign kicking off in March and, if we’re lucky enough to overcome Norway or Serbia in the playoff Final, the Euro 2020 Finals in June. For the likes of Callum McGregor and James Forrest, two of Scotland’s likely starters, there is the risk of burnout. Yes they’ve had five months without a competitive game, the longest break of their careers, but playing two or three games a week for a long period will be very demanding on them mentally as well as physically.
Overall, the Scottish Football schedule is going to be very testing. There is almost no room for a breather and doesn’t take into account match postponements, the possibility of further lockdown if a second wave of the virus hits Scotland, or even if another outbreak of another virus puts the world on hold. Globally, everyone is having to adjust to a new way of life and redefining the word normal, but it appears that our governing bodies have not accounted that. Yes there’s a new TV deal with Sky for the Premiership and, as mentioned, Premier Sports taking over the Betfred Cup, and in no way are they to blame for the recent issues that have affected our game, but there could’ve been flexibility and I’m not convinced that has been explored by Neil Doncaster and the board. Given their recent track record, it’s difficult to believe that they tested Sky and Premier’s flexibility in the fixture list, although Premier agreed to an October date knowing the issues for the lower league sides.
There’s going to be lots of players across all four divisions risking burnout physically and mentally as a result of this schedule, and with squad sizes likely to be reducing it will be a strain on the reassures available to the managers of the 42 clubs. However, after five months without football, it will just be good to see competitive football return to Scotland, and to start talking about action on the pitch as opposed to the circus off the field that has shamed our game.