With the SPFL facing pressure over Celtic’s disastrous trip to Dubai, the decision to suspend the lower leagues and the £20million of Scottish Government loans yet to reach cash-strapped clubs in the SPFL, their embattled chief executive Neil Doncaster tells Sportsmail’s Chief Football Writer Stephen McGowan that coronavirus is the ‘biggest challenge the game has faced since the Second World War’.
Celtic’s first team recently headed to Dubai for a controversial warm-weather training camp
Can you explain the reasons behind the suspension of the lower leagues?
NEIL DONCASTER: Those who are connecting the suspension of the game to Celtic having a positive Covid result after a trip to a training camp in Dubai are simply wide of the mark. Discussions on suspension started last week prior to there being any indication of a positive in the Celtic camp. So let’s nail that one unequivocally.
I think what the Scottish FA have done in terms of deciding to suspend the women’s game and the men’s game beneath the Championship is genuinely a proportionate and sensible approach to take with record numbers of deaths and huge numbers of people in intensive care units and the government urging those who can stay at home to stay at home.
We are continuing with the Championship and the Premiership on the basis that the Championship clubs are now subject to the same testing regime as the Premiership. Clearly that is going to be another huge cost for them and the Scottish FA took the decision that the right thing to do was to suspend what was effectively part-time football.
The SPFL board has endorsed that view and think it is the right approach to take and I think the majority of part-time clubs agree with that.
A small number have been vocal in their disagreement, but I do think the silent majority think it’s right.
Celtic had 13 players and manager Neil Lennon missing for Monday’s 1-1 draw with Hibernian
Gary Deans of Falkirk says the lower leagues are ‘carrying the can’ for failings across the game. Others feel you are throwing the politicians a sacrifice to save Celtic’s skin?
ND: No, that is well wide of the mark. It is exactly what the SFA said it was — a response to a health crisis and trying to lead and be responsible. That is the role of the governing body and one they have carried out very well in this instance.
At a virtual meeting of the clubs on Wednesday it’s alleged that the SPFL silenced debate and dissent from concerned clubs.
ND: No, that is entirely unfair. Given that we had over 50 people on a Zoom call, we advised all 42 member clubs in advance of the meeting that questions should be emailed in to ensure that everyone had a chance to make their points. The chairman reiterated that point at the start of the meeting. And every question we received during the meeting was read out in full by the chairman and answered comprehensively. Any suggestion that people have been muted is simply wide of the mark again.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon questioned whether Celtic’s trip was ‘essential’
Full-time clubs like Falkirk and Partick will fear the lower league season is already over and that relegation and promotion will be closed off to them? Are they right?
ND: At the moment it’s a three-week suspension of League One and League Two. The member clubs have been asked on two occasions in the past year if they would favour additional powers being given to the SPFL board to deal with Covid-related disruption. On both occasions, the clubs were very largely against doing so and decided to retain those powers for the members.
What that means is that, while we are all doing everything we can to complete the season and get every game played, in the event the season can’t be completed, then members will have to have their say. And ultimately it’s a members’ decision, as it was last year.
How hopeful or optimistic can you be that the Premiership and Championship can reach a conclusion and honour the broadcasting contracts with Sky and the BBC?
ND: The contracts are absolutely the economic drivers that support the whole game. Certainly all 42 senior clubs. It’s very important to the economic future of the game that the Premiership and Championship are allowed to continue. As things stand, we would be very hopeful of being able to complete the season on time in both of the top divisions. Clearly you have more flexibility in League Ones and Two because you have more midweek slots and no split to worry about.
So if it is just the three-week suspension then completing the season on time should be doable. The longer any suspension goes on, the more difficult that will be.
Neil Doncaster says football is facing the ‘biggest challenge since the Second World War’
You allowed Celtic to rearrange a league game against Hibs to go on a warm weather training camp in Dubai. Why?
ND: The role of the league is to schedule games. We do not have a role in blessing or otherwise any training camps around the world. Our role is to schedule games. There was a Celtic-Hibernian game scheduled for Saturday, January 9. The club came to us with a request to put that fixture back 48 hours and, in line with previous procedure, that request was agreed to by the board of the SPFL and Iain Blair, who has 22 years of experience now in dealing with these issues. We had another one last weekend when Livingston requested that their game (against Ross County) be put back 24 hours. When the home club makes a request like that, then generally the home club has precedence. I think anyone saying that any club has been treated differently to any other is, again, wide of the mark.
But Celtic already had games outstanding in what is already the most congested fixture schedule in living memory? Why did the SPFL not insist on playing those before rescheduling another one?
ND: There are a number of issues there. Celtic’s game was scheduled to another slot within the same weekend. Secondly, when the request was agreed to move the Hibs game back in November, Celtic were clearly not going to progress in the Europa League. That freed up a large number of midweek dates post Christmas — and their elimination from the Betfred Cup freed up two more dates. So by November Celtic’s fixture congestion had eased quite considerably.
Celtic have placed their entire Under-18 squad on the UK Government furlough scheme
Did the SPFL Board know or approve of the fact Celtic were making a risky trip to Dubai?
ND: It’s not the role of the league to bless — or otherwise — what clubs do. We are there to effectively apply the rule book agreed by the member clubs. That rule book does not give us any basis for getting involved in a decision to go to a training camp or not — that is clearly a decision for the clubs themselves.
Celtic have been very candid this week in terms of their regret at going on the trip. We welcomed that stance being taken, but we have to be very careful as a league not to over-reach what we are there to do. We are there to apply the rules — not cast value judgments on things clubs are permitted to do by government.
There is a perception out there that when Celtic say ‘jump’ the SPFL ask, ‘how high?’
ND: People are keen to point to that occasion when one game was moved at the request of a member club, but give far less focus on Livingston’s request to move their home game against Ross County last weekend. That is the nature of the beast because Celtic are clearly a higher profile issue — but the decision was taken in line with normal procedure. No special treatment was given.
Full-time clubs like Falkirk and Partick fear the lower league season is already over
Hibs were unhappy that they had to play the game on Monday regardless of a Celtic player testing positive. Should the league have been more sympathetic to their concerns?
ND: Firstly, Hibs never actually requested that the game be postponed. What they requested was additional testing and, again, we have to apply the rules fairly and evenly to all. Celtic had been instructed by government that 13 players had to self-isolate following the positive test, which they did.
Every player who appeared in the game on Monday night had submitted a negative test result in the 168 hours prior to kick-off — which is what the regulations require. We can’t start making up rules as we go along — those rules have been in place all season.
They have been adhered to by the clubs. We of course understand a request from a club for additional testing. But it should be no surprise to anyone that we said: ‘No the rules are there, they apply and the government made it very clear there was no justification for any further tests and so we applied the rules’.
Do the SPFL feel the need to remind some clubs of their responsibilities after some high-profile breaches recently?
ND: We have had very regular briefings from Scottish football’s Joint Response Group setting out what clubs can and can’t do and clubs are going to enormous lengths to reduce infections and there is an enormous amount of work going on from real heroes of the game, such as volunteers and medical staff, to keep clubs going through the pandemic. They deserve a lot of credit for that.
Is it time now for a ban of curtailment of goal celebrations?
ND: I think it’s important we keep everything under review. There is no evidence I am aware of existing of transmission between players on the field of play. The transmissions to date appear to have occurred in dressing rooms, on buses or at meal times.
League One and League Two fixtures have been suspended for three weeks due to pandemic
Just how challenging has this period been for the game in general?
ND: The game has had its challenges. We’ve had all sorts of challenges over the 11 years that I’ve been involved. But I do believe that this is the biggest challenge the game has faced since the Second World War. But the vaccine gives us light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. Everyone in the game is determined to do all we possibly can to get this season completed and to hopefully start 2021-22 in far better shape.
Lower league clubs at least have government grants to sustain them. What about the £20m in loans yet to be made available to the Premiership clubs?
ND: Clearly discussions are still ongoing between the Scottish FA and the Scottish Government. It is a major issue and we hope very much that it can get resolved in future. Premiership clubs have salary and other expenses to meet and things are getting very tight at virtually every Scottish club.
The Championship, League One and League Two clubs have received and benefitted from £10m of grant funding made available by the Scottish Government. But, to date, not a penny of the £20m of loan funding has been received by Premiership clubs.
There are now Premiership teams furloughing Under-18 teams — has this crisis caused unseen damage to clubs which people don’t see?
ND: There is huge damage being done. There is huge distress at various levels of the game. There are a lot of people who are really labouring and it’s appropriate that football is allowed to continue in the full-time ranks of the Premiership and Championship because it does give people hope.
It gives people something to view on TV and look forward to getting back into stadiums. Football has an important role to play in keeping people’s spirits high at this very difficult time. The mental health challenges so many in the game are going through is something we shouldn’t underestimate.
Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk