cottish football has had worse weeks. It is just now difficult to remember them. For two days out of the past three a government coronavirus briefing has been dominated by the once beautiful, now unseemly, game.
That eight Aberdeen players thought it wise to attend a busy city-centre bar after a home defeat by Rangers had politicians fixing their eyes towards the Scottish Premiership’s resumption even without the extraordinary actions of Boli Bolingoli. The Celtic left-back, widely regarded as expendable before his trip to Spain, has now triggered the postponement of three fixtures. It is quite the claim to infamy. A penny for the thoughts of KR Reykjavik, due to leave tight restrictions in their home country to face Celtic in a Champions League qualifier next week.
Those of cynical disposition towards the Scottish government will highlight this is a useful distraction from the chaos involving exam results but the national sport has brought itself into disrepute at a time when it can ill afford it. Coronavirus has left Scottish clubs scraping for existence, anxious to have gate money available before long. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon has warned that one more transgression will halt the sport indefinitely. If that occurs, clubs will be pushed to the brink.
Bolingoli’s antics defy belief. He skipped to Spain for an overnight stay, not informing the club of his jaunt either in advance or – with Aberdeen-gate dominating the news – upon return. In taking his place among the Celtic substitutes for the draw at Kilmarnock on Sunday, he not only breached quarantine protocols but put at risk players and staff from both sides. When Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, said he was “livid” and “appalled” this felt like an understatement. It is difficult to envisage Bolingoli in a Celtic jersey again.
Celtic say they have “led the way” and “could have done no more” in relation to Covid-19 protocols. This verges on untimely sanctimony, not untypical of the Old Firm, yet scores of staff at Celtic and Aberdeen, subject to pay cuts and fears over their futures, have worked tirelessly and professionally for months when assisting with football’s resumption. It is difficult to pinpoint what could be done about rogue elements such as Bolingoli or the Aberdeen eight. Footballers have a responsibility, just as they retain a duty to deploy even traces of common sense.
Less high-profile incidents have been curiously forgotten. Rangers and Motherwell had to delay kick-off for a friendly match on 22 July after test results were late in appearing. But splitting the squad, Rangers had played Dundee United earlier the same day, posing questions which haven’t been fully answered. Hibernian had to call off a practice game against Ross County because of a testing delay. St Mirren appeared at the heart of a cluster when seven members of staff tested positive for Covid-19; only for six of them to be explained as false outcomes. Scottish football’s handling of the new normal hasn’t been faultless. Rod Petrie, the Scottish FA’s president, spoke of acting “swiftly and decisively” over the Bolingoli affair; on Friday morning, with eight players in enforced isolation, Aberdeen’s Saturday lunchtime trip to St Johnstone was still on the fixture card. “No you don’t” said the Scottish government, as the permanently underwhelming football authorities cowered like naughty schoolboys.
The top flight, raced back to meet the start date for a new television deal, is dangling by a thread. Governing bodies, who botched the curtailment of the 2019-20 campaign, are now in precisely the movie they wanted to avoid. It isn’t their ball. Holyrood calls the shots, not the Scottish FA or the Scottish Professional Football League. The latter has sounded almost panic-ridden all along about fitting in 38 games. Now, they have to factor in rescheduling.
This isn’t any standard season. Celtic’s pursuit of 10 titles in a row adds intensity and fuels conspiracy. Lennon’s men when taking to the pitch at Dundee United on the evening of 22 August could be 11 points behind Rangers. Celtic might be favourites to prevail in the Premiership but added pressure has been applied. There are no rules and regulations in place about how the Scottish game would, in football terms, deal with severe disruption or any prolonged delay. In a period where history-making is on the line, that in itself represents the biggest of elephants in a room full of tribal division.
There can be no guarantees of players or clubs avoiding further transgressions. In fact, it would be unwise to bet against it. If that adds to the sense that Scottish football’s theatre will always outstrip on-field value, this time the backdrop is wholly serious. “Next time will be the red card as you will leave us with no choice,” Sturgeon warned. Some clubs would be in a battle to survive the suspension.