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Halkirk United and Thurso wait to see whether North Caledonian League will pause amid record levels of Covid-19 cases with crunch meeting planned for Wednesday night

By Andrew Henderson

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North Caledonian League clubs are set to meet tomorrow night to discuss whether to press pause on the 2021/22 campaign in light of high numbers of Covid cases.

The omicron variant has seen both Scotland and the UK tally record numbers of positive tests. That has already had an impact on football, with clubs limited to a maximum of 500 supporters at matches since Boxing Day.

Although the Premiership chose to bring forward their winter break in the hope fans would be able to attend in greater numbers by the middle of January, other tiers have largely tried to continue as normal.

Halkirk United boss Ewan McElroy has already questioned whether it is right to continue, and with his side hosting Invergordon and Thurso due to be on the road to Bonar Bridge this Saturday fresh doubt has been cast over whether the matches will go ahead.

Since the pandemic first hit in March 2020, though, the North Caley FA have taken a cautious approach, so they will meet again tomorrow to discuss the current situation – and league president Iain Whitehead is unsure which way clubs will lean.

"We've not heard anything, nobody has been in touch," he explained.

Thuso have already tasted success this season, beating Halkirk in the Football Times Cup final. Picture: James Mackenzie
Thuso have already tasted success this season, beating Halkirk in the Football Times Cup final. Picture: James Mackenzie

"They know that the meeting is happening, so no-one has been on the phone to say they can't or don't want to play.

"Knowing what the clubs have said in the past, there will probably be one or two that will be keen not to play, some will be cautious.

"We aim for caution anyway, but I think there are quite a lot of cases about, so if that is the case then I would say games probably will be off.

"Just seeing how many cases are about, I would imagine that there's bound to be players affected. I would be very surprised if there aren't, because I would imagine they've been all out mixing at Christmas and New Year, so there's bound to be some people who have picked it up.

"Looking at the weather, I think that's probably going to halt the games this weekend anyway by the look of it, but we've got a meeting to see what everyone's thinking. We'll see what people are saying on Wednesday and decide what we're doing then."

While the Football Times Cup has already been played to completion, the NCL has the option of not playing the Jock Mackay Cup and North Caledonian Cup to free up space in the calendar that could be crucial to finishing the league season.

With that in mind, Whitehead is certainly not suggesting that a break in the campaign would be a doomsday scenario for the campaign, far from it.

"It wouldn't be the end of the world," Whitehead stressed.

"We've got a few more games to play than normal with the league being a little bit bigger, but we're reasonably well on with our league fixtures.

"We've been pretty good, we've had a few games played that I thought wouldn't be to be honest, so we're pretty well up with the fixtures.

"A few weeks wouldn't really matter one way or the other for us, but obviously we'll know more on Wednesday.

"It might get to the point where we might start to struggle to finish the games, but we can make sure the league gets completed.

"We have options, but obviously when we meet on Wednesday we'll know what's happening certainly with this week's fixtures."

Although some games have been called off because of positive Covid cases, by and large the first half of the season was able to run fairly smoothly.

Compared to previous shut downs, North Caley clubs also have the advantage of experience – knowing what they are comfortable doing, and what measures need to be in place to not exacerbate rising numbers.

"It's been pretty good, but with the games that have been off it has just been one or two people who have tested positive within a team, or not even that – some of them are close contacts," Whitehead reasoned.

"They have always decided to call the game off, and that was left up to the teams themselves to decide what they wanted to do in the first half of the season. There hasn't been anything from the SFA, the protocols are all in place now from before so you're left to apply common sense.

"It's simpler for us, because we don't have crowds to deal with. All our pitches are open – I think it's just Golspie that has an enclosed ground – and if you have 50 people at a game they're spread out anyway.

"We are back to using changing rooms again, but there might be some clubs who decide they won't use them this week. They know to ventilate and open windows, and players might arrive with their strips on.

"They've done it before, and if there is a pause with the football we're equipped to deal with that.

"We're used to not having games at this time of the year anyway. Our season is geared up for that, we're probably more adaptable to it than most."

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