Clubs in the third and fourth tiers of the Scottish Professional Football League are still holding discussions over issues surrounding the start of the 2020-21 season
Sky Sports News’ Charles Paterson and Luke Shanley have spoken to Scottish League One and Two clubs who say they are open to the possibility of no competitive football before the start of 2021.
Three part-time clubs – one in League One and two in League Two – have told Sky Sports News that it is “realistically impossible” for their clubs to function behind closed doors.
On Thursday, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon outlined a four-phase route map towards easing Covid-19 restrictions, but the prospect of competitive football in Scotland being played in front of supporters remains a distant one.
SPFL clubs met on Thursday to discuss the issues surrounding starting season 2020-2021, and the different challenges facing part-time and full-time clubs.
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League One clubs met on Friday afternoon, while a meeting of Championship clubs is expected on Monday. Two clubs in Scotland’s second tier are part-time: Dumbarton and Arbroath, as are the vast majority of clubs in the lower two divisions.
Fresh proposals for league reconstruction are being circulated to SPFL clubs this weekend by Hearts owner Ann Budge, which if voted through could reshape how next season’s league setup looks, but even if that happens it appears increasingly likely many part-time teams in the lower divisions would struggle to fulfil their initial fixtures if they were scheduled for early August.
The Premiership is due to begin on August 1, but the League Cup group stages are scheduled to take place from mid-July onwards; on Wednesday SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster told Sky Sports News that the League Cup presented “a particular challenge” in terms of its scheduling.
Raith Rovers, who led Scottish League One by one point before the season was suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic, have now been crowned third tier champions for 2019-20
One possible option for the League Cup would be to delay the start of the tournament until January, and make the competition a straight knockout while dispensing with the group stages. An alternative proposal for the lower leagues could be to play a “half-season”, with two rounds of fixtures home and away.
One chairman has admitted that “mothballing the entire season is something none of us want – but it might be forced on us”.
“It’ll cost us around £20,000 to put on a game behind closed doors – that is an impossibility really for the lower league clubs,” he said.
“It’s really all about finance. I can see the Premiership managing, but even the Championship might struggle – Partick Thistle might be able to have a stab at it in League One with their fanbase.
“In terms of keeping the club alive, the best scenario is where we are right now, with everyone furloughed. We’ll be going to keep everyone on that system as long as possible. We all want to get back to football, but realistically I can’t see any way forward unless there’s a big financial package out there that we don’t know about.
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster says any legal action taken against the SPFL could have an impact on all members.
“Most of the clubs would be against going into hibernation for a season; I would say no. A year without football would mean breaking loads of corporate ties, so that just wouldn’t work.
“Would the players want to just play as amateurs at this level? I don’t know. That’s a discussion we need to have with the PFA.
“If we can’t really get going until September or October, by which time social distancing has been reduced, I would question if we need to play each other four times – can we just go down to playing home and away once? We’d still have the cup games, and to me, that is the best scenario. That would give us the chance to do something in the season if it was starting later, if the rules are a lot less relaxed.”
The importance of supporter footfall to lower league clubs and the issues around player welfare has been spelt out by another chairman.
“Our gate receipts make up 10 per cent of turnover, but our social club and bar make up another 40 per cent, he said.
“Most of our sponsors are companies that have all been hit by the pandemic. If we stay on furlough, we are capable of surviving as a business for quite a period of time, but if the scheme halts in the late summer or autumn we’d need to top that up. Without income it’s going to be very difficult.
“We’ve got 12 players under contract for next season – most of the clubs have far less. There’s going to be no pre-season friendlies, and the League Cup income we normally get early in the season looks doubtful – how are we expected to put a team out?
“There’s also a question about health check testing players and staff for coronavirus. We worked out it would be about £18,000 a month; I don’t know if that will be subsidised or not.
“A vaccine might be a long way away, but even then, will people be wanting to come back and stand in big crowds? We’ve got to make sure that people don’t lose the habit of going to football, because it’s an easy option not to go.”