Sturgeon announcement on crowds and playing football is a welcome boost

EVER since football was cancelled in Scotland back in March as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, it has been a frustrating time for everyone. Not just for players wanting to get back to playing and fans wanting to get back to watching their team again, but for everyone who enjoys playing the sport whether it’d be at senior, non-league or amateur level, or even those who just enjoy a game of five or seven aside.

The best that we have had to look forward to since football was curtailed five months ago are classic games on Sportscene, the SFA and SPFL’s YouTube channel and whatever in-house club channels have had to offer. In terms of playing, back garden football with our kids has been all we can do as some parents added football coach to being a teacher and best pal as well as mum and dad.

Thankfully, there is now light at the end of the tunnel in Scotland after months of waiting.

Recently, coaching classes for kids outdoors has resumed in smaller groups at social distancing, which is great news, and contact training for top flight clubs resumed at the start of July so that they can be ready for the start of the season. The Premiership restarting tomorrow is also a welcome boost, although fans can be forgiven for not being too excited given events of 2020 and the fact no spectators will be at grounds initially.

Yesterday, however, Nicola Sturgeon announces two key steps that should be welcomed by football fans across the board.

• Outdoor football for all age groups can resume from 24 August.
• Partial crowds maintaining Social Distancing could be allowed into sports stadiums from 14 September.

Providing Scotland continues the recent progress of reducing the number of positive cases and deaths from the disease, this will be a massive boost for those who love the game up here. Unlike our counterparts in the English Premiership and Championship, who benefit from huge TV contracts, Scottish Football depends heavily on crowds coming into their grounds to cheer on their teams. The thought of no crowds on opening weekend in the top flight is going to be hard, particularly given the poor feedback Premiership games have been receiving from fans who have been watching, so giving fans that ray of hope is something to look forward to.

The timing is key for clubs outwith the top flight in particular. The Championship, Leagues One and Two and the Women’s Premier League are due to get underway over the weekend of 16 October, with the Lowland, Highland and West of Scotland Leagues likely to be a similar date, so they’ll be able to welcome fans to their grounds. In some clubs cases, as discussed on a previous blog (https://www.scottishfootballforums.co.uk/2020/07/crowds-at-games-should-start-from-the-bottom/), they should be able to maintain their existing average crowds at a social distance level so this is a great boost for these sides, where some have relied on JustGiving page donations to get them through this uncertain period.

Of course, whilst the reintroduction of crowds is a good thing, there is still a danger of rushing things with the virus still around. You only need to look at the news with cases in a call centre in Motherwell, for example, for evidence that getting too complacent could result in everyone going back to square one. The 14 September date is less than a month away from Scotland’s crucial Euro 2020 playoff Semi Final with Israel, which was a sellout before it was postponed in March, and little over a month away from the first Old Firm game of the season at Celtic Park. There will be pressure on the Scottish Government to allow full capacity crowds to be permitted by the time these games come around. As much as we’d love Scotland to be playing in front of a full Hampden for such a crucial game, and I am one who has a ticket, and for 60,000 fans to be at Celtic Park on 17 October, it could be too soon if there are still positive Coronavirus cases in Scotland at this time. You also need to factor in the potential travellers from other parts of the world, particularly those who follow Celtic and Rangers, and the risk of spreading infection becomes greater. The Scottish Government needs to be strong and not cave into economic demands at the expense of health, which has been their message throughout this pandemic.

What is more welcome is that outdoor football for all age groups can resume towards the end of August. For a lot of people, including myself who plays seven asides once per week, this news is massive for not just a health and fitness point of view but a mental health point of view. Lots of men and women up and down the country love playing the sport, so having had that taken away back in March was tough to take. Whilst we could still go for a walk, jog or bike ride, or play sports in our back garden, it’s not the same for those who just enjoy a kick about with their mates playing fives or sevens, and for amateur teams and boys clubs striving to win competitions at that level. Having that enjoyment taken away was tough so having the return to look forward to is a massive boost.

From the Scottish Football Podcast point of view, having the Back Onside Charity match taken away was particularly tough. Throughout the pandemic, mental health has been more challenging than before given the measures people were asked to follow, such as seeing family or friends, being furloughed or losing their jobs, and not being able to do things that kept them going. We were gutted that the game, which would’ve raised a lot of money for the charity to allow them to do their excellent work, was postponed, so this news is positive as we look to put plans in place for a rearranged game in 2021.

Yes there are still more things to be done, such as bringing back indoor football when the time’s right with the winter months not far away, and there will be many fans who will miss out when crowds resume due to the cut capacity measures. However, this is a big step in the right direction given that some experts predicted January before crowds would be allowed back into a stadium again. Things are a long way from being normal, and the definition of normal will be different going forward after the impact of COVID-19, but allowing reduced crowds into grounds, and allowing people of all ages to participate in the sport again, is a massive boost for those who love this beautiful game in our country.

After the effects of lockdown, and watching club executives embroil in a childish internet spat for four months, by god does Scottish Football need some positivity!

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.