Clubs including Celtic, Motherwell and Hibernian have asked the Scottish league to bring forward the winter break after sports events in Scotland were effectively put behind closed doors for up to three weeks.
New rules to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 will kick in on Boxing Day and impact fixtures including top-flight football derbies in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. They will also affect the double-header between Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh in the United Rugby Championship.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that public events would be limited to up to 200 people indoors and 500 outdoors, admitting that would make football matches “effectively spectator-free”.
The cinch Premiership is due to shut down for three weeks from January 3 with top-flight teams returning to Scottish Cup action in the fourth weekend of the year.
To speed up the break, clubs and the Scottish Professional Football League would also need to reach agreement with Sky Sports, which is due to screen four matches before the league stops, including Rangers’ trip to Celtic Park on January 2. Lower-league clubs do not have a break.
After confirming their request, a Celtic statement read: “The game owes it to supporters to explore all opportunities to maximise the prospect of all supporters being able to attend matches and support the game they love.”
Hibs stated that they completely understood the “incredibly difficult situation” and that “health and safety should be at the forefront of every decision, which is why the club has made this proposal to the SPFL”.
A club statement added: “Alongside this, every effort should be made to allow supporters to watch their team and the game they love. The club also believes that this will protect the integrity of the competition and would save clubs from the potential loss of substantial revenue.”
Motherwell chief executive Alan Burrows said: “We should start the winter break now, and rearrange these matches when all fans have a chance to attend at a later date when hopefully restrictions are eased.
“That way we increase the likelihood (from zero, currently) that fans can watch the games live, all matches are played under the same parameters and clubs can commercialise the fixtures in line with current budgets.
“During that time, we put our facilities and platform at the disposal of the local health authorities to ensure as many booster vaccinations can be administered as possible.”
Several managers also backed the idea of bringing forward the break, with Aberdeen boss Stephen Glass declaring himself 100 per cent behind it.
Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou said: “I don’t like football played behind closed doors. We had a season of it in Japan, I just didn’t enjoy it.”
St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson said: “Obviously we want the games to go ahead as much as possible but personally I would rather have the supporters through the door and have a winter break.
“But you don’t really know the severity of Covid in three weeks’ time. That’s the only issue. We could end up being six weeks.”
The Scottish football authorities promised to hold a series of consultations and declared they were already in discussions with the Scottish Government to ensure clubs got access to the support fund announced by the First Minister. Aberdeen estimated the restrictions could cost them £500,000.
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster said: “Today’s news will be a hammer blow to clubs and fans across the country, who simply could not have done more to mitigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic.
“Despite the enormous financial impact, the 42 clubs have provided an invaluable source of reassurance, support and relief from the day-to-day impact of Covid-19 in communities throughout Scotland and they will continue to do so.
“Our clubs have adapted quickly and effectively to previous restrictions, and we will work with them in implementing the guidance from today’s announcement in the coming days.”
The Scottish Rugby Union vowed to work closely with government and public health officials to help “ensure a return to unrestricted stadium access at the earliest possible opportunity”.
Sturgeon earlier explained that large gatherings – and transport to and from – had the potential to become “very rapid super-spreader events”. She also stated big events put an additional burden on emergency services which are dealing with high staff absences.
Her deputy, John Swinney, later claimed last Sunday’s Premier Sports Cup final between Celtic and Hibs could turn out to be a super-spreader event and admitted: “I regret the fact we didn’t take this decision earlier.”
Swinney added on BBC Radio Scotland: “I have to acknowledge that events of that nature have the potential to be super-spreader events and the government, if it’s acting in the interests of the public health of our community, has got to take some difficult decisions that people will not like.”