Time running out to salvage our seasons, fear football clubs in Borders
Time is fast running out for current lower league football seasons as they near two months on hold, fear clubs in the Borders.
Teams in League One and League Two were given the go-ahead to resume training last week and are now setting their sights on recommencing their seasons on Saturday, March 20.
Little mention was made of divisions below the Scottish game's top four tiers, however, leaving the likes of Gala Fairydean Rovers and Vale of Leithen in the dark about if or when the current Scottish Lowland Football League season will be able to kick off again.
It’s been suspended since Monday, January 11, as part of efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus but the Galashiels and Innerleithen sides had been out of action for weeks prior to that date due to adverse weather, the former since December 26 and the latter since December 15.
Allowing for a few weeks’ pre-season training, even if the fifth-tier league and the East of Scotland League below it, home to Hawick Royal Albert United and Peebles Rovers, get the green light to go again within days, they’ll be up against the clock to complete their fixture lists unless they’re rejigged and cut down.
Bosses at the region’s clubs say they understand that uncertainty is inevitable given the unpredictability of the Covid-19 pandemic but are calling for more clarity to enable them either to make arrangements for an imminent return to action or to start looking ahead to next season instead.
“We’re a bit in limbo at the moment,” said Gala Fairydean Rovers chairman Ryan Cass.
“It feels like we’re being left behind and we’re being left in the dark too.
“It’s a bit disappointing and frustrating, and we’ve not had much in the way of help from the Scottish Football Association while this has been going on.
“Time’s ticking on obviously and it’s been ten weeks since our players last played so they’re going to need a minimum of three or four weeks of pre-season or it’d just be asking for injuries.”
Vale of Leithen vice-chairman John Anderson is also keen to see an end to the ongoing uncertainty.
“A requirement of weekly testing is a non-starter financially for clubs at our level, so based on a return without testing, we need to know a date to restart, with the usual caveats that it is provisional and based on continued progress in covid data,” he said.
“Continuing to kick the can down the road is not good for clubs, players or supporters.
“ We are not going to suddenly be able to afford to test. T hat will not change.
“We need to know when we can return. When we have that date, the SFA needs to confirm when the season ends. That will allow us to know how many weeks we would have to play.
“At the moment, we have to finish the season, or at least have a declared champion, by April 17. The SFA, Scottish Professional Football League and Lowland League can agree to move that date, but there is still not that much flexibility.
“Under UEFA rules, all leagues under the professional game banner need to finish by May 31. That leaves a tight timescale for games. We would need to factor in a mini-pre-season before games. L1 and L2 went back to training last week but won't have their first games until March 20. We are already a week behind that schedule.
“Vale have not had a competitive match since December 15 and have not trained since early January. Also bear in mind we are dealing with part-time players, with full-time jobs, who haven't trained in coming up to three months.
“Give us dates so we know how many weeks we have to work with and can decide how to finish the season or just admit we’re not going back until after April 26. When we know a date, if at all, we can decide how to proceed. For me, there are logical steps we take. We work out how many weeks we would have available, work out what pre-season time is needed, then work out how many weeks we have for matches.
“Can we complete the season as planned with 32 games? I guess the answer is a definite no now.
“Should the season be null or void or can we restart with a truncated format? The two suggestions are to either play to halfway point and everyone plays each other once or play to halfway and then a split top and bottom to have a 24 or 25-game season. I suspect the split option is increasingly unlikely due to time constraints.
“My view is if we are not back by the end of the month, we have to call it null and void. What we can't have is continued uncertainty.”
Kevin Strathdee, a player and coach at Hawick Royal Albert United, agrees, saying: “We are obviously a bit disappointed at not getting the go-ahead to start playing.
“We were even hoping for a date to start preparing for, but that was not to be.
“If we get the go-ahead we are hoping to at least play every team in our league at least once.
“We have only played eight league games, so there are still plenty to play.
“We obviously hope that everyone’s health is good and they stay safe before we get the go-ahead. That is more important.”
Peebles Rovers chairman Colin Macdonald added: “I think we’re resigned to the fact we may well not see football in the EoSFL for the rest of this season.
“Clarity from the government hasn’t been great, but, as a club, we understand the priority is people’s health and wellbeing at this moment in time.
“A truncated season is becoming a distant hope given the need for players to train for a few weeks before fixtures resume. Perhaps it would be good to see a return to bounce games and friendlies at the earliest safe time to do so this season? That would give us at least some football in players’ legs and allow us to prepare for 2021-22.”