Clubs raise their game with sterling community efforts

Coronavirus crisis grips city

by Paul Chalk                                                                                                                     Saturday, March 21

ROSS County have sent their players packing – in a bid to help beat Covid-19.

As expected, the Scottish FA and SPFL suspended all matches until April 30 – and that is wildly optimistic as the nation deals with the coronavirus in ways never seen before.

It’s not just matches sidelined for the time being, our football chiefs advised against training too. County reacted on Friday by cancelling all academy and community programmes and managers Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson told their players to go home to their families, while maintaining fitness levels as best as they can.

I expect day by day others will follow suit. It’s the sensible step.

Football clubs have changed their focus from the pitch to their immediate local areas. Nairn County, from the Highland League, were first to hit the headlines by urging local self-isolators to get in touch should they need help to get their shopping or even have their dogs walked.

They say it’s the least they can do after the community rallied round to assist when the club threatened to hit the financial buffers in the not too distant past. 

Caley Thistle followed Nairn’s lead and, with a particular focus on the elderly members of the community, they are asking for food and household essentials which they can parcel up and deliver. See the ICT Togetherness link on the Caley Jags website.

What happens now in terms of football’s return is anyone’s guess. Do we scrap the season and declare Celtic the Scottish champions again, with runaway Championship leaders Dundee United stepping up? United won’t be caught. With eight fixtures left, they lead Inverness CT by 14 points, albeit having played one match more.

At the top table, Celtic are 13 points ahead of Rangers and the crisis shutdown came on the eve of what would have been the penultimate Old Firm game of the season. While Neil Lennon’s team are still hot favourites to win nine-in-a-row if the campaign is allowed to be concluded, there is a chance that Rangers will make them work for it.

Again if Rangers beat Celtic at Ibrox and then win their game in hand over St Johnstone the gap will be seven points with one more meeting between them. The odds are still hugely stacked in Celtic’s favour and Rangers since the New Year have been consistently inconsistent.

However, champions should need to always earn their titles after a complete season and that means 38 fixtures. Whenever football kicks off again, we must complete this season first before starting the next one.

UEFA moving the Euros to next summer allows us to do that, even if we shorten the 2020-21 campaign. Even just scrapping the Betfred Cup would free up much needed time to play league matches.

One of the many options gathering momentum, however, is to freeze the season, make the current standings the final ones, scrapping relegation and add respective Highland and Lowland League leaders Brora Rangers and Kelty Hearts new entrants into League Two. This would also include an expanded top-flight. Bottom side Hearts would avoid the dreaded drop and Caley Thistle would join Dundee United in moving up as the current top two from the Championship.

There are slightly less headaches and more smiles with this suggestion. More clubs would be happy with that than unhappy. Scottish football is a real life soap opera. The fact there are so many talking points, and I’ve just touched on a couple here, shows that there is a thirst for our game. It may lack quality at times, but it never fails to spark discussion, which is what it’s all about.

Humble winner Brian was a star turn on air

IT was an absolute pleasure to have former Scotland, Aberdeen and Ross County defender Brian Irvine as my studio guest on Alive and Kicking on Friday.

My weekly sports show on North Highland Radio may not have had much sport to discuss during the postponement period amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Brian lit up the airwaves with his chat of a stellar career, which included nine international caps.

The fact I didn’t know about him, or I had forgotten, was that he was given a chance to rejoin Aberdeen when Ebbe Skovdahl was the Dons manager in 1999, but he had already verbally agreed to join Ross County. Although he felt sure that, as a 34-year-old at that point, he could have still performed at top-flight level for Aberdeen, he dipped down two levels to help County climb up to what is now the Championship.

He’s one of the most humble sportsmen I have interviewed in my 20-plus years in journalism, always grateful for the opportunities he was given.

Of course whenever football resumes, Aberdeen will lock horns with Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final, while Hibs and Hearts contest the other last four tie. To think it is now 30 years since Brian tucked away the penalty in the 1990 Scottish Cup final against Celtic that won the shootout 9-8 is mind-boggling.

See Inverness news and views later this week when I’ll have two exclusive interviews lined up for my radio show, one of which is an Inverness-based world champion. Listen to North Highland Radio via its website, the Tune In app or through your smart speakers.

UPDATE: Brora Rangers have been declared the Highland League champions since writing the above column. Steven Mackay’s impressive team have been head and shoulders above the rest and are 13 points ahead of Inverurie Locos, who alongside third-placed Fraserburgh could have pulled closer.

However, with football nationwide off the agenda for the foreseeable future, HFL chiefs opted to act upon the widely-held view that Brora deserve the title. The Cattachs now wait to see how the bigger picture looks. Do they contest the pyramid play-off against most likely Lowland League winners Kelty Hearts then League Two basement club Brechin City for the chance to get into Scotland’s fourth senior tier?

As discussed already, they might find themselves catapulted into League Two as part of an expansion. Whatever happens, I can’t see this decision setting a precedent whereby Celtic are handed the Premiership crown. It’s not as simple as that when the Old Firm and nine-in-a-row are at stake.

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