Given pressure from the SPFL over Celtic’s disastrous trip to Dubai, the decision to suspend the minor leagues and the Scottish government’s £ 20million loans not yet getting into the financially troubled SPFL clubs, their contested executive Neil Doncaster recalls Sportsmail’s Stephen McGowan, chief football writer, says the coronavirus is “the greatest challenge the game has faced since World War II.”
Celtic’s first team recently traveled to Dubai for a controversial warm weather training camp
Can you explain the reasons for the minor league suspension?
NEIL DONCASTER: Those who associate the interruption of the game with Celtic and get a positive Covid result after a trip to a training camp in Dubai are just wrong. Discussions about the suspension started last week before there were any indications of a positive outcome in the Celtic camp. So let’s nail that down clearly.
I think what the Scottish Federation has done to suspend the women’s game and the men’s game under the championship is really a proportionate and sensible approach to dealing with record deaths and large numbers of people in intensive care units and the government practice asking those who can stay home to stay home.
We are continuing the championship and the Premiership on the basis that the Championship clubs are now subject to the same testing regime as the Premiership. This will clearly add another huge cost to them and the Scottish Federation made the decision that the right thing to do was to suspend the effective part-time football.
The SPFL board has confirmed this view and believes that this is the right approach and I think the majority of part-time clubs agree.
A small number have been vocal about their disagreement, but I think the silent majority thinks it’s right.
Celtic missed 13 players and manager Neil Lennon in the 1-1 draw with Hibernian on Monday
Falkirk’s Gary Deans says the minor leagues bear the can for mistakes in the game. Others think you are making a sacrifice to politicians to save Celtic’s skin?
ND: No, that is far from the mark. It’s exactly what the SFA said – responding to a health crisis and trying to lead and be accountable. That is the role of the governing body, which they have performed very well in this case.
At a virtual meeting of the clubs on Wednesday, the SPFL is said to have silenced the debate and contradicted the clubs concerned.
ND: No, that’s totally unfair. Since we had over 50 people on one Zoom call, we recommended that all 42 member clubs email questions prior to the meeting to ensure everyone had a chance to score their points.
The Chairman repeated this point at the beginning of the meeting. And every question we received during the meeting was read in full by the chairman and answered comprehensively. Any suggestion that people have been muted is just far from the mark again.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon asked if Celtic’s trip was “essential”.
Full-time clubs like Falkirk and Partick will fear that the season in the lower division is already over and that relegation and promotion will be closed for them? You’re right
ND: At the moment it’s a three-week suspension from League One and League Two. Member clubs were asked twice over the past year if they would advocate additional powers for the SPFL board to deal with disruptions related to Covid. In both cases, the clubs were largely against it and decided to keep these powers for members.
This means that while we are all doing everything we can to end the season and play every game, in case the season cannot be completed, members must have their say. And ultimately, it’s a membership decision, as it was last year.
How hopeful or optimistic can you be that the Premiership and Championship can come to a close and meet broadcasting deals with Sky and the BBC?
ND: The contracts are absolutely the economic drivers that support the whole game. Certainly all 42 senior clubs. It is very important for the economic future of the game that the Premiership and the championship can continue. From today’s perspective, we would be very confident of being able to conclude the season on time in both top divisions. Of course, you have more flexibility in League Ones and Two because you have more slots during the week and you don’t have to worry.
So if it’s just the three-week lockdown, it should be possible to finish the season on time. The longer a suspension lasts, the more difficult it becomes.
According to Neil Doncaster, football is facing “its greatest challenge since World War II”.
They allowed Celtic to rearrange a league game against Hibs to attend a warm weather training camp in Dubai. Why?
ND: The role of the league is to plan games. We don’t play a role in the blessing or other training camps around the world. Our job is to plan games. A Celtic-Hibernian game was planned for Saturday, January 9th.
The club came to us with a request to postpone this game for 48 hours and, in line with previous procedure, this request was approved by the SPFL Board of Directors and Iain Blair, who now has 22 years of experience dealing with these issues. We had another last weekend when Livingston asked for their game (against Ross County) to be reset for 24 hours.
If the home club makes such a request, the home club generally has priority. I think anyone who says that a club was treated differently than everyone else is far from the mark again.
But Celtic already had outstanding games in the already most congested schedule in living memory? Why didn’t the SPFL insist on playing this one before rescheduling another?
ND: There are a number of problems there. Celtic’s game was scheduled for the same game over the same weekend. Second, when the request was agreed to postpone the Hibs game in November, Celtic would clearly not be making any progress in the Europa League.
That cleared a large number of dates during the week after Christmas – and her departure from the Betfred Cup cleared two more dates. By November, the congestion in the Celtic games had decreased significantly.
Celtic has added its entire U18 squad to the UK government’s vacation program
Did the SPFL board know or approve of the fact that Celtic was making a risky trip to Dubai?
ND: It is not the league’s job to bless – or otherwise – what clubs do. We are there to effectively apply the rules agreed by the member clubs. These rulebooks do not give us a basis on which to decide whether or not to go to a training camp – this is clearly a decision for the clubs themselves.
Celtic has been very open this week about their regrets for going on the trip. We welcomed this attitude, but as a league we have to be very careful not to go too far in what we want to do. We’re here to apply the rules – not make value judgments about things clubs are allowed to do by the government.
There is a perception out there that when Celtic says “jump” the SPFL asks, “How high?”
ND: People would like to point out this opportunity when a game was postponed at the request of a member club, but they are far less focused on Livingston’s request to postpone their home game against Ross County last weekend.
That is the nature of the beast, because Celtic is clearly a higher issue – but the decision was made in accordance with normal process. No special treatment was given.
Full-time clubs like Falkirk and Partick Thistle fear that the season in the lower division is already over