Please Wait . . .
Only a fortnight after football in Scotland restarted for the first time since mid-March, it has been threatened with a fresh shutdown over the behaviour of some players.
The 2020-21 campaign opened with Rangers’ 1-0 victory away against Aberdeen, yet hours later, it immediately found itself put under question as it came to light that eight Dons players had breached strict protocols designed to minimised the chance of players contracting the virus.
After the tepid display against Steven Gerrard’s side, Bruce Anderson, Craig Bryson, Sam Cosgrove, Michael Devlin, Jonny Hayes, Matthew Kennedy, Dylan McGeouch and Scott McKenna broke their sporting bubble by visiting a bar on the evening a fresh cluster took hold in the north east that has since caused the region to move back into a state of stricter lockdown.
Two subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, and while both were asymptomatic, the SPFL was forced to postpone last weekend’s match with St Johnstone, the only UK match due to be televised live that day, leaving the whole of Scottish football red faced.
To the club’s credit, chairman David Cormack did state that they were “fully prepared” to play the fixture due to “the fact we caused it ourselves”. Of course, the eight players in question would not have been eligible.
“As a player group, we once again apologise unreservedly,” a joint statement issues by the group said. “We, as a small group of players, made a huge error of judgement last weekend by thinking it was OK to visit a city centre venue together.
“None of us could have foreseen the escalation of Covid-19 cases in the Grampian area.”
The Scottish Government, though, was left unimpressed.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted that she was “pretty furious” over the situation, adding: “We are expecting members of the public to behave in a highly precautionary manner right now and, when a football club ends up with players infected with Covid - and let's remember this is not through bad luck but through clear breaches of the rules - we cannot take even the small risk that they spread the infection to other parts of the country.”
To that juncture, football had escaped censure for what were perceived to be minor infractions of the new rules. Rangers, Motherwell and Hibs all received little more than a slap on the wrist for breaching testing protocols in pre-season, while testing itself was stepped up to twice per week after St Mirren had eight members of staff test positive, albeit six of these were false positives.
The Aberdeen incident, however, thrust the game firmly into an unwelcome spotlight.
The Scottish Government’s instructions on quarantine after returning from Spain are clear: “If you arrived or returned from Spain from 00:01 on 26 July you will need to self-isolate,” it states.
But Bolingoli, who had not told anyone in the club about his trip, appeared last weekend as a late substitute against Kilmarnock, sparking universal outrage having failed to self-quarantine.
“We have been bitterly and sorely let down,” Lennon said. “The players are angry, disappointed and frustrated. The selfish actions of the individual is baffling. I’m livid, it was a total betrayal of trust.”
“Consider today the yellow card. The next time it will be the red card because you will leave us with absolutely no choice,” the First Minister explained at her briefing with the press on Tuesday.
“We can't have privileged football players just deciding that they are not going to bother following government guidelines. This can't go on.”
It left the midweek fixture card bereft of two matches: Celtic’s encounter with St Mirren joining Aberdeen’s scheduled clash with Hamilton as being postponed. Furthermore, the scheduled match between the two clubs for Saturday, August 15 has also been pushed back to a later date.
Greater implications are afoot, however, with new rules set to be hurried in by the SPFL in order to clamp down on players who breach coronavirus guidelines. Among the punishments being considered are community service, fines and long suspensions, according to reports.
Reacting to the stern warning of the First Minister, Rod Petrie, the chairman of the SFA, said: “Clubs and players are in no doubt there is no more margin for error.”
With Celtic chasing a record 10-in-a-row, the stakes could barely be higher, but by the time they kick a ball again on August 22 when they visit Dundee United, they could find themselves a daunting 11 points behind Glasgow rivals Rangers.