Sport in turmoil as impact of virus begins to hit home

Coronavirus crisis grips city

by Paul Chalk                                                                                                                            Sunday, March 15

FRIDAY’S dramatic turn of events throughout the sporting world was like nothing we’ve seen before. As the coronavirus crisis hit country after country, governing bodies were left with no alternative but to close the gates for who knows how long.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon stated that from Monday all gatherings of 500 people or more would not be permitted.

Rangers and Celtic were set to meet at Ibrox on Sunday in front of 50,000 fans in the last roll of the Premiership dice for the Light Blues, who are 13 points behind the Hoops with a game against St Johnstone in hand.

It seemed that while many European countries were locking the footballs away to put people’s health first, Scotland was willing to gamble by waiting for a full weekend of action to be played out. Thankfully that soon changed. 

Friday began with UEFA suspending its Champions and Europa Leagues. The night before, Rangers lost 3-1 at home to Bayer Leverkusen and were set to play the second leg of the last 32 tie behind closed doors next Thursday. 

The English Premier League and English Football League, as well as the FA, also announced a shutdown until April 3, although the feeling down south is that that date is hugely optimistic. Scottish football fans waited for a response and they got one, despite Nicola Sturgeon pointing towards next week for a freeze of action.

A joint statement from the Scottish FA and SPFL confirmed that all matches from professional to grassroots level would be postponed until further notice.

The 55 UEFA members will meet for what is expected to be a lengthy video conference on Tuesday to discuss the next steps, but the Scotland v Israel Euro 2020 semi-final play-off at Hampden on March 26 is certain to be postponed. 

The confirmation that the finals, which were set to be played throughout Europe including Scotland and England this summer, will be shifted to next year would allow time for the play-offs to be contested later in the year. 

The debate raging the loudest right now is what happens with the domestic divisions which are in their final laps but with nothing concluded, despite leading sides having the finishing line in sight. 

In the Premiership, Celtic of course are well ahead, but if Rangers win the last Old Firm clash and their game in hand suddenly the gap would be seven points with seven matches left. 

Who is to say how Neil Lennon’s men would react to that kind of pressure? Even if the wise money would still be on them handling the heat, they really do need to be tested to get over the line for nine in a row. 

It’s the same at the bottom where Ross County have been sucked towards a relegation battle. Their scheduled fixture against Hamilton on Saturday was set to be packed with tension, given an Accies win in Dingwall would have plunged the Staggies into the relegation play-off position. 

In the Championship, Dundee United have stuttered of late by their standards but they are Premiership-bound with a 14-point advantage over Inverness. Caley Thistle have a four-point gap over Dundee for the coveted second spot, which would avoid one double-header play-off at least. 

Campaigns must be concluded, and all credit to Dundee United sporting director Tony Asghar, who insisted that despite their champions-elect position, he’d rather have his players earn their champions status over 36 games rather than the 28 they’ve reached now. 

Celtic manager Neil Lennon wants the season to finish, but insists if that’s not possible then his team should be declared the league winners. 

Handing Celtic and Dundee United titles when they mathematically can still be caught is wrong. All hell would break loose if administrators chose that option. I think that’s most unlikely. 

The news that an unnamed Caley Thistle first-team player had to self-isolate after displaying coronavirus symptoms did awaken the senses as to how real and how close this health threat is, as Scotland also saw its first fatality. 

Shinty chiefs, the Camanachd Association, acted pretty much in line with football on Friday and postponed games, in their case, until further notice. The timing of this health emergency was a real blow to this special amateur sport, just one week after the new season began with a flurry of goals.

Rugby’s decision-making, however, was a puzzle. Wales were due to face Scotland in a Six Nations match with no influence on who would win the tournament. Yet, the Welsh Rugby Union insisted even on Friday morning that it had followed the scientific advice from the government and the game would go ahead as planned on Saturday afternoon. With sport after sport and league after league pulling the plug, the pressure was on, with the Scottish team and thousands of our fans already in Cardiff for what would have been a 74,500 sell-out. 

Remember, the France v Ireland and Italy v England ties had been called off well in advance. It now seems that all three finishing fixtures will be played on October 31, with England ready to win the competition on the back of Scotland halting the flying French at BT Murrayfield a fortnight ago. 

The Scottish Rugby Union added to the confusion on Friday in terms of the domestic divisions. A statement on Friday afternoon says their sports postponements would kick off on Sunday night (March 15). Some clubs, like Highland, who were to host Stirling Wolves on Saturday, pulled their own plug and claimed it would be “irresponsible” to play the game in the current climate.

So, sport is sidelined for now, but guidance from governments next week will hopefully direct the sporting authorities on when it may be safe to play once more. 

* Paul Chalk’s Alive and Kicking sports show is on North Highland Radio every Friday from 7pm. Listen via the North Highland Radio website, the Tune In app or through your smart speakers. 

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