Scotland

Coronavirus: What are the options for Scottish football?

aberdeen vs hibernian on 7 March Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There have been no SPFL fixtures since early March

With the SPFL set to agree on how to move forward after football was put on hold due to the coronavirus, what options are available and which one is most likely to be adopted?

How do you make a monumental decision in a landscape that's changing by the hour? One that is likely to satisfy some, enrage others and could have massive implications now and in the future? That is the scenario facing the board of the SPFL this week when they gather to decide the best way forward.

Scottish football was suspended last month with eight games left to play in the current season.

Continuing their dominance in the Premiership, Celtic sit 13 points clear of rivals Rangers at the top of the table, although the Ibrox side have a game in hand.

At the bottom, Hearts are four points adrift of Hamilton. That is the backdrop to a decision about what happens now - and these are the three options on the table.

Declare the season null and void

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Declaring the season null and void would deprive Celtic of the chance of securing a ninth consecutive league title

It has already happened elsewhere. Scottish rugby took the decision to declare their domestic season null and void, following lengthy negotiations at boardroom level.

To many, it might seem the easiest way of dealing with this issue - a big bold decision for a big unprecedented global problem. Like everything else at the moment, it's just not that simple.

One of the major problems with null and void is the potential legal and, ultimately, financial implications. If you declare something void, you are essentially saying it didn't happen.

This is the scenario where sponsors and broadcasters are most likely to come looking for money back. The SPFL wants to avoid that at all costs.

The Uefa factor is also key to null and void. The European governing body issue placements for the Champions and Europa League based on sporting merit.

This simply cannot happen in this scenario - Uefa have said nations could be excluded from next year's competitions, and domestic associations are of the firm belief that they are serious.

There is also the issue of prize money. How can money be awarded to clubs for a season that effectively didn't happen? Especially given a large chunk of that cash has already been paid out.

The litigation factor for declaring the season null and void is so huge, that the SPFL have pretty much taken it off the table as an option.

Find the time to finish

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Few people think Rangers have any hope of catching Celtic in the title race

This is, without a doubt, everyone's preferred option. Even would be champions Celtic, who could be awarded the title now, would rather see the campaign played out to a finish.

This, of course, is the option with the most obvious problem. How do you find the time to finish a season when the entire country is in lockdown, with no idea when restrictions will ease?

The SPFL have been asking the Scottish government to try and provide some clarity but for now, they simply cannot.

The only advice they can, and have, given is that the NHS has been placed on an emergency footing until 10 June and everyone else should be prepared to hold off until that date, at least.

So here is a scenario. If the green light was given for 10 June and restrictions were lifted, just how quickly could the football season get back under way?

Clubs have broadly agreed that at least six weeks of group training would be needed before a competitive match could take place.

Taking those factors into account, and checking the next available dates, the earliest date would seem to be Saturday 25 July - exactly a week before the proposed start of the new 2020/21 season and weeks after the start of the new League Cup campaign.

This is before you even start to think about whether the government is likely to allow mass gatherings. In the US there's a growing belief that mass gathering won't be allowed in this calendar year.

Playing out season 2019/20 to a finish would certainly keep the broadcasters and sponsors happy. With a new five-year broadcast deal ready to kick in from the start of the new campaign, the SPFL is keen to protect the integrity of that as much as possible.

Playing out the season is what everyone wants, but there is a growing realisation that this scenario is looking increasingly unlikely.

Call it as it is

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hearts are currently in the relegation slot in the league table

It is the outcome that most are now expecting, but it's not quite as simple as freezing the table, relegating Hearts and crowning Celtic as champions.

If clubs eventually agree that this is the way to go, then sporting integrity has to be protected as much as possible. With that in mind, there are various options that could be discussed.

One potential solution would be to issue all clubs with a 1-1 draw and adjust the season accordingly. Another would be to put the stats into a computer and let the processors do their work.

Rolling back the games and results to when all clubs had played each other the same amount of times could also be investigated. My understanding is that there is little off the table in a bid to find a consensus.

The scenario has already played out in Scotland. The Highland league called it a few weeks ago after looking at statistical analysis.

Their members took the view that protecting the new season was more important than arguing about one that looked to be over anyway. That is what key members within Scotland's top flight are ready to argue when the clubs get together this week.

Rangers might argue that Celtic could be caught. Few in the game believe that would happen in reality, and it may well be that inside Ibrox they are already aware that calling the season is more than likely.

In a sense, the gap between Celtic and Rangers makes the decision at the top fairly straightforward. Allow yourself to imagine the debate if the gap was smaller.

The biggest problem for the league is at the bottom of the table. One of Scotland's biggest clubs is staring relegation in the face when a few weeks ago they had eight games left to save themselves.

Ann Budge will do everything she can to protect her club and will not go down without a fight. She is also a pragmatist and if the writing is one the wall, she will get the best deal she can and get on with it.

With the caveat that things are changing day to day, I'm afraid, for Hearts fans the writing is very much on the wall.