Sunday sports news and views
by our sports correspondent
MATT Macdonald is one of the stalwarts on the committee which keeps “everyone’s other favourite club”, Fort William, alive and kicking in the face of difficult challenges, particularly relating to the distances they have to travel across half of Scotland for away matches. He’s also the president of the North of Scotland Football Association, which, in addition to his Claggan Park role, gives him a hefty footballing schedule.
On match days at Claggan he’s to be found in the small wooden ticket booth where fans pay for entry to the North’s – and maybe Britain’s – most picturesque football ground. I’ve known him for years and last week on the phone our conversation inevitably turned to prospects for the new football season.
What if no fans are allowed in next season, I asked him.
“Well, I’ll probably just stand in the booth for the first 20 minutes of the game anyway,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for so many years I’ve lost count. I might not be able to break the habit!”
I think he was joking.
For Matt and every other dyed-in-the-wool football fan the new season – when it gets underway – will quite obviously be like no other.
The Scottish Premiership has a provisional date for relaunch behind closed doors of August 1, but that’s dependent on Scottish Government approval.
With Sky pledged to pour millions into match coverage it’s vital that the action begins and the cameras are in place to justify the payout. Many would say a silent prayer of thanks should be offered by every club chairman to the TV company – often criticised for upending fixture schedules. The appeal for TV viewers of behind-closed-doors football very much remains to be seen. Online opinion on the Bundesliga League without fans as a TV spectacle has been overwhelmingly negative. The first weekend of the return of live football action was keenly anticipated, but the great mass of viewers who registered comment said their interest faded almost before the first half-hearted tackle went in. Many switched off.
Whether a behind closed doors broadcast of St Johnstone v Livingston would have much – if any – viewer appeal is doubtful. And yes, it’s true that these games only attract 2,000 fans anyway. But that’s still a lot more than no-one.
There is no clarification yet as to when the Championship, with Caley Thistle hoping to mount another promotion push, will begin, or how many games the season will involve. There may be no action until next year. The strain this puts on club finances is obvious. Running a lower league football club at any time could put scars on your back. In the current situation, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
As for the Highland League, the attendances at most grounds mean the demands of “social distancing” among fans should offer no difficulty whatsoever. But there are what seem to be rigorous requirements on “player safety” with regard to dressing room facilities and so on. That could be tricky – and costly to manage. With the prospect of no gate income and new health regulations it’s a financial burden that clubs already operating on a shoestring really don’t need.
What lies ahead. No-one knows. To coin a phrase, the coronavirus is a game-changer like no other.
Meanwhile, Ross County acted swiftly last week by axing 14 of their players, a drastic move which invoked criticism from those who believe they should have taken advantage of the furlough scheme and kept them on the books.
Richard Foster, one of those cut loose, strongly criticised the club for their “short-sighted” approach. His anger was palpable. However at least he’s in the fortunate position of having no immediate financial worries to deal with. He’s married to singing superstar Amy Macdonald. Mrs Macdonald is a committed Rangers fan and has on several occasions led the anthem singing for Scotland games at Hampden. And in these strange times even she took a break from songwriting to express criticism. Coming under fire from a medium-grade footballer is one thing. But when Amy Macdonald takes aim at you – well maybe it’s best to duck.
It was a hard-nosed decision by County chairman Roy MacGregor, but he hasn’t gained his eminence either in business or football by being anything else when he considers it necessary. He was also ahead of just about everyone else when it came to anticipating the storm that was about to hit Scottish football.
Two months ago, when the endless wrangling about the prospective outcome of “last” season was about to get underway, he was already looking ahead to what was to come. In a lengthy interview with the Daily Mail he was the first senior figure to go on the record with his concerns about the total loss of matchday hospitality income in 2020/21, and his fears that attendances at County home matches could be limited to a maximum of 500 fans.
These dire coronavirus consequences – in such a rapidly changing situation – had not at that time occurred, it seemed, to other club bosses, or to fans.
MacGregor was on the ball with that projection. It turns out the only flaw in his argument was that he was too optimistic.
All in all it’s a chaotic scene. Welcome to the new normal. I’ll be meeting up with Matt Macdonald in the near future to reflect on the current situation. Maybe he’ll be able to offer a more optimistic perspective on it all. We live in hope.
Ann Budge – doughty fighter or bitter woman?
HEARTS owner Ann Budge will on Monday see her plan for league reconstruction discussed at a crisis meeting – yet another crisis meeting – of the 42 clubs involved. It seems almost certain it will be rejected. And if that happens she’s threatening to drag it all through the courts.
With Hearts due to be relegated, Budge just won’t give up in her determination to thwart that outcome. Is she justified? Or is she coming across to most people with an interest in the game as a cross between a very bitter woman and a laughing stock?
The prospect of this saga being dragged interminably through the courts is an excrutiating one. A detailed legal submission from Budge and her advisers to the courts would be about as interesting to most fans as a pamphlet from her favourite managerial signing Ian Cathro – A tactician’s guide to confusing the opposition and your own players, and losing every game in sight.
Budge may still doggedly insist that relegating Hearts would be a terrible injustice, and it is possible – anything’s possible – that they might have avoided the drop. But at the time when fixtures were suspended they were by common consent the worst team in the Premiership, clueless, gutless and on a seemingly endless losing streak. As club chief Budge carries the can for that. And nothing she can do, in the courts or anywhere else, can disguise that bottom-of-the-heap reality.
Bannerman clocks up cheerful ‘cheat’ mile
IF you see a female figure running through the streets around and about Inverness at a pace to make your eyes-water, the chances are it’s Jenny Bannerman. I can recognise her literally half a mile away. No-one else I know sustains a pace like she does.
Now, in a challenge which arose because of the current situation, she’s gone and beaten the mile record – in a cheerful “cheat” style.
Chelsea football Jason Barklay posted an unlikely time of 16mins 11secs for a 5km run he did – an achievement you might struggle to do on a bike. It then emerged he’d done it by breaking it down into stages, which is a very different thing altogether.
Scottish international half-marathon runner Bannerman decided to have a go at this unorthodox challenge. She said: “I did 10 short sprints with the wind behind me within a 30-minute time limit.” And she ended up clocking her mile in 3mins 39secs.
Roger Bannister, look away now!
She admitted that the effort drained her. Repeat full-pace sprints? That’s a very tough way to spend a spare half hour.
Hopefully she’ll be back in action doing the real thing before too long.
I met her father, and her trainer, Charlie Bannerman last Sunday. A regular at Inverness Leisure when it’s open – and thousands will be hoping it’s back in business again before too long – he tells me he’s keeping in shape by cycling two days a week and running four days. Now well into his 60s, Charlie had no intention of stagnating during the lockdown.
He was a top runner himself in his heyday. Although what time he’d now clock for a “cheat” mile – well that’s very much open to question!
Fork out a bit extra to avoid the dreaded ‘hiss’
BIKE usage is rocketing as folk look at alternative ways of getting around these days, and avoiding public transport in particular. Long may it continue – although how long it actually will continue remains to be seen.
However, if you’re new to a bike, do yourself a favour and get yourself a decent pair of tyres. That’s something bike newbies are liable to entirely overlook. Until, that is, they notice a rapid and increasing sensation of bumpiness as they ride along, and realise within seconds that they’ve got a puncture.
If you’re good at fixing punctures – no problem. But if, like most cyclists, you hate them, well they can ruin a ride and even put you off bike riding for good. I’ve seen it happen.
And when it comes to bikes, it’s not simply the case that a tyre is a tyre is a tyre. There is a vast difference between cheap and flimsy tyres which offer very little puncture protection and those which offer much, much more. And the difference in cost is minimal. A cheap tyre which could leave you walking home, or much worse, stranded miles away, costs £10-15. A much stronger one, with inner protective layers, costs only £30-35. They are slightly heavier and offer more rolling resistance, but for the average cyclist who isn’t after headlong speed, the extra puncture protection is much more important.
When it comes to punctures, nothing on the market offers a thousand per cent guarantee. But the most impregnable of all are Schwalbe Marathons, which have been tried and tested to the point where to breach them you’d almost need to hammer a nail into them. They cost around £35 or so each. I use Armadillos, which are also extremely tough, and can give you a couple of thousand miles of puncture-proof rides. But there are others available and it’s well worth a good look at the huge number of reviews online.
Or alternately, seek advice at the city’s two excellent bike shops, Bikes of Inverness and Highland Bikes. The experts – and the guys are experts – will keep you right. Bikes of Inverness, the last I heard, are open only on a restricted basis and Highland Bikes currently have limited opening hours. Both hopefully will be fully back in operation for what’s sure to be a surge in business very soon. Until then – happy riding, and let’s hope you don’t hear that dreaded hiss…