Wick chairman welcomes three-week suspension of Highland League football
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Wick Academy chairman Pat Miller has backed the decision to halt the Highland League season for at least three weeks – and indicated that the club would not have been prepared to carry on playing in any case.
The SFA announced today that all football below the SPFL Premiership and Championship will be suspended until January 31 while lockdown measures are in force and against a backdrop of rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.
“I am actually happy that they have come to that decision because it takes it out of our hands that we would have to make a decision ourselves,” Miller said.
“I know we were not the only club. There were quite a few clubs that were not prepared to carry on.”
Miller said the difficulties of playing under strict coronavirus rules had been brought into sharp focus in Academy's last game, when they had to travel to Fife on Boxing Day for a Scottish Cup first-round tie against Cowdenbeath.
The match – which Academy lost 2-0 – was played in driving rain and strong winds, and, in line with the restrictions, the players were unable to have a shower afterwards. “It's inhuman to ask people to play in conditions like that and not be able to wash themselves,” the chairman said.
The suspension will be reviewed on a rolling basis by the SFA board and the Scottish Government. The Scottish Cup will also be suspended, with all matches scheduled to be played prior to February 1 having to be rescheduled.
Last week, Academy manager Gary Manson called for Highland League football to be brought to a halt while mainland Scotland remains in lockdown.
The North Caledonian League has already agreed to pause its season for the duration of January.
Reflecting on that December 26 trip to Cowdenbeath's Central Park, Miller said: “When you see players coming off a park shivering, and they can't have a shower, you know there's more to it than the actual disease itself – there's the health and safety of the players as well.
“The rain never let up the whole day. When the boys came off the park they were literally freezing, and that brought everything to a head.
“We'd been told they could have a vigorous towelling after a game. But a vigorous towelling doesn't do anything for you when you're freezing.
“They were straight on a bus and straight up the road.
“There was no hospitality, but Domino's pizza place is only a street away from the Cowdenbeath park and they delivered about 20 pizzas to the bus for us. That was our only saving grace the whole day.”
The updated Scottish Government guidance allows for the continuation of professional sport. However, Sunday's SFA board meeting – which followed a Coronavirus Joint Response Group discussion on Friday – looked at the implications of doing so at all tiers of the Scottish football pyramid, against a backdrop of increased positive cases of the virus across the country.
In a statement, the board said it gave "extensive consideration to making a decision in the interests of public health, taking cognisance of the government’s wish to reduce travel and possible contact with others while safeguarding commercial broadcasting contracts that sustain the professional game".
The suspension takes effect from midnight tonight and affects SPFL League One and League Two, Scottish Women’s Football Premier League One and League Two, the Highland League, Lowland League, East, West and South of Scotland leagues and Scottish junior FA leagues, as well as the North Caledonian League.
The SPFL Premiership will be exempt from the suspension, "provided it continues to adhere to the stringent testing protocols". The Championship will also be able to continue as long as it carries out weekly testing.
SFA president Rod Petrie said: “The Scottish FA is well aware of the efforts all clubs take to comply with the exacting protocols that were conditional on elite football being given an exemption to continue amid the pandemic.
“Nonetheless the continuation of football at all levels has weighed increasingly heavy on me as president, my colleagues on the board and the joint response group as we have watched the new strain of the virus spread rapidly.
“While the national sport has been afforded the privilege of elite sporting exemption, the risk of mass transportation of untested, largely part-time players is something that cannot be sustained as the cases continue to rise and available hospital beds become increasingly scarce.
“After discussions with the SPFL, the Premiership and Championship will continue on the proviso that both adhere to the existing testing regime. The vast majority of teams in those divisions are full-time professional clubs and so the risk of transmission remains manageably low.
"The cost implications to lower-division clubs was one factor but so too the realisation that many – with some notable exceptions – consist of part-time players who are either prevented from working due to the virus or have to work.
“In either case, the risk is currently too great amid the developing nationwide spread of the virus.
“Much has been said of football’s relationship with the Scottish Government during the pandemic. As president of the Scottish FA and chairman of the joint response group, I am grateful for the clinical expertise provided by government specifically to football and for the timely award of £30m in grant and loan funding for the game.
“We reiterate our commitment to playing our part in the collective effort to eradicate the virus.”
Academy would have had a league fixture at home to Huntly on Saturday but it was postponed because the Christie Park side were due to play at Dumbarton in round two of the Scottish Cup – although that match was in turn postponed due to a frozen pitch.
The weather also caused the cancellation of the Scorries' January 2 trip to Keith.