Caithness summer season would be a pointless exercise without spectators, says Pentland United's Michael Gray
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Pentland United's Michael Gray has warned that going ahead with the summer football season in Caithness would be "a pointless exercise" if Covid-19 restrictions meant no spectators could attend games.
He regards the Caithness AFA league as an integral part of community life and would see no appeal in playing without supporters present.
Gray – who was a long-serving goalkeeper for the successful Dunnet club before becoming part of its management team – also feels it would be unrealistic to expect amateur clubs at county level to adopt the range of Covid-19 protocols he has witnessed first-hand in his role as assistant manager at Wick Academy.
He believes it is increasingly unlikely that the 2020/21 Highland League season, already shortened to a 15-game fixture list, will be completed. It was announced this week that all lower-division football in Scotland is to remain suspended until at least next month.
“I’ll be brutally frank," Gray (44) said. "I think that people are going to have to expect the summer season to be gone as well if things don’t improve.
“I look at the kind of arrangements that Academy have to put into place to allow a game to go ahead. Asking amateur teams to do that, it’s a non-starter – it’s not feasible.
“We all hope for normality but the spike around about Christmas time has certainly dented a lot of our optimism. Unfortunately, until the vaccine is rolled out to a certain extent, amateur football is going to be on the back burner – purely because of the arrangements.
“It’s a big thing in Caithness life. It’s more than just the eleven versus eleven on the park. It’s a very sociable thing – lots of people use it as a meeting place to see their neighbours and friends.
"I think it’s very important that people don’t lose their perspective on that. It’s a very social part of the Caithness community.
“If you were to play behind closed doors, for me you’d be completely missing the point. I don’t know how you’d even police it, to be honest. It would be really difficult.
“It’s getting people out in the open and catching up: 'How have you been, what’s going on in your life?'
“We’re all competitive animals and we love that side of things too, but for me it’s very much a cornerstone of community life, be it the towns or the villages.
“You don’t just do it for yourselves, you do it for your communities and you’re giving a centrepiece in people’s lives. If you don’t have that, I don’t see the benefits of it at all.
“If that was to be excluded it would absolutely be a pointless exercise.
“I think there is going to have to be a degree of pragmatism around this and people are going to have to put a lot of thought into it.
“From a Pentland United point of view we are very lucky. We have a very strong committee but I don’t think we should start being elitist and excluding certain clubs because they can’t put things into place.
“I’d far rather postpone again and get everybody back together rather than going with half a dozen teams. I think it really would be a backward step if you start excluding clubs. That’s not the way we want to be going. It’s either all or none, really.
“That’s only my point of view. I don’t know what the club’s thoughts would be on what the season might look like.
“The players are a little bit different, they ever the optimists. But the people looking at the arrangements and what would need to be put in place, from other clubs as well, they have a lot of misgivings.
“Football is a spectator sport. When I played football myself, interaction was a huge part of it.
It’s more than just the eleven versus eleven on the park... It’s a very social part of the Caithness community.
“I certainly don’t want to be the prophet of doom. Nobody would love to be out there playing football and watching football more than me. But with all these restrictions, and the enjoyment level, you just have to say: what are we hoping to achieve here?
“The way I look at it just now, I would think there will be a lot of concerns whether it’s achievable. But you never know what progress can be made in the next few months.
“We’d all dearly love to be back at the parks and playing in front of people. That would be the ideal scenario. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Gray has played a major part in many of Pentland United's trophy successes over the years, both in Caithness and in the Highland Amateur Cup. He made his debut for the club around 1991 and became first-choice goalkeeper two years later. His last game was the Eain Mackintosh Cup final in 2019.