Rod Petrie: SFA chairman on spats, football returning & his dog Jet

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Rangers row with SPFL 'unedifying' - Scottish FA president Petrie

With a lockdown beard now joining the famous 'tache in what he merrily calls "my new normal", Rod Petrie covered a fair amount of ground over the course of an hour on Friday.

The president of the Scottish FA doesn't do many interviews but has seen most things in his life in football. These past weeks, though, have thrown up a bewildering amount of new story lines and fresh concerns about what the game looks like now and what it's going to look like when the curse of the Coronavirus eventually leaves us.

In a bid to plan ahead, the Joint Response Group has been set up, six sub-groups have been established and within the six sub-groups there are sub-sub-groups forming to examine every aspect of the new reality. All of this is being done against a wearying backdrop of bitterness and rancour in the SPFL, a footballing circus seemingly without end.

Tom English: What's your take on the various spats that are going on at the moment?

Rod Petrie: It's unedifying and the sooner it's resolved - however it's resolved - the better for the game. It's damaging that this has taken as much attention as it has and we need to move on from that. The SPFL has a process for dealing with it. There's a [extraordinary general] meeting that's been convened and we will hear the outcome of that in due course.

The SFA is keen that the game moves on, the SFA is keen that the game is presented in the best possible light. That's why I say it's unedifying that it's made headlines for the last few days.

TE: Have you not been tempted to intervene, as president of the SFA?

RP: We need to give the SPFL and the member clubs the courtesy to resolve their matter themselves. Ultimately the SFA is the overarching regulatory body and if there's any complaint that comes out of this process then potentially we might be required to hear that in some dispute resolution process.

It would be wrong of the SFA to intervene and contribute to the debate at the moment. It's very important that football deals with the issues it has but then moves on.

TE: You're meeting the Scottish government next week...

RP: Can I just reflect for a second on the great loss of life in our country and across the world? It's easy to get sucked into the football chat but we're in a lockdown to prevent the spread of this disease, which is affecting every house. So I just want to take a moment to thank all the football family for playing its part.

The meeting? Yes, we're meeting the minister [for public health, sport and wellbeing, Joe Fitzpatrick] as part of a potential restart of football, but only when a restart is safe to do so.

TE: As much as you want football back, you can't apply pressure, can you?

RP: No, we can't and wont. This is a very delicate balance and football is not pushing for a premature restart. We recognise the huge sacrifices that are being made by everybody and it would be good to start to play football again but only when it's safe to do so.

TE: The First Minister says she won't give false hope on a return to play...

RP: Yeah, we agree that it should be a cautious approach. Until NHS emergency services are stood down from the emergency footing they're on at the moment, we can't start a lead-in programme. A lead-in programme is about seven weeks, so if on June 10 there was a relaxation then we could start to plan and that would take us to early August.

Now, we're not pushing for that, but unless we start to address the issues about how you open up a stadium, how you open up a training ground, how you deal with the social distancing then we're doing ourselves a disservice. But if the restrictive measures are extended beyond June 10 then the date we can start to gently open up training centres and introduce players back to training will recede further.

TE: It could well be that they're back playing football in England but there's still no football in Scotland. That would put the pressure on up here...

RP: What you're identifying is a slight difference in the political assessment. The word coming out of Whitehall is that Premier League football might be able to return in some form and that might lift the morale of the nation.

The English Premier League is one of the richest leagues in the world so they can look at measures that can get them back playing. The EPL has a lot of resource, a big TV contract. In Scotland, the fans are the lifeblood of the game, so getting fans into stadiums is a major objective, but we can't do that until it is safe.

TE: Would you be comfortable with closed-doors games?

RP: It certainly works in England. That's their model. It's not the model for football clubs in Scotland. Your middle ranking Scottish Premiership club might get four times the money through the gate as it does through its TV contract so the economics [of closed-doors games] don't work in Scotland.

I know that politicians have questioned whether putting games on in Scotland is a good thing if it encourages supporters to congregate in houses and so compromise the measures in place. Football needs to be innovative. We have to be respectful of the restrictions but we need to explore what can be done safely and in a cost-effective manner.

TE: In finance terms, it's a different planet down there in the Premier League...

RP: The challenges we face in Scotland are bigger than the challenges they face in England because we just don't have the resource that they have at their fingertips to put simple things in place. Testing, for the sake of argument. For the English Premier League to test all the players in a restart period over a number of games costs £200 a time, so that overall cost could be £10m.

The Scottish Premiership doesn't have £10m to devote simply to testing, so we need to understand what the environment is and be clever and smart and use technology. How do you get supporters into a stadium? You have traditional turnstiles, somebody coughs in his hand, puts his hand on the turnstile, pushes it through, the next guy puts his hands on the turnstile and there's a transmission. These are very simple things but things we need to find solutions to.

TE: How do you do that?

RP: That's why we've set up the Joint Response Group and the sub-groups. We've tasked them to look at areas like medical - how do you open a training centre, how do you create a bio-secure environment for players and physios, chefs and cleaners when there's still social distancing? How do you that? If you look at the football pyramid - when is grassroots football going to be up and running?

The SFA has a responsibility for that, too. You look at the lack of resource they have. The initial discussions with the grassroots is that, 'Well, we can't see ourselves playing football until all restrictions are lifted by government'. There may be no football at grassroots level until the pandemic is over.

TE: That could be next year...

RP: That could be 2021. It could be more than that. Parts of football need to be prepared for the fact that there is no quick fix, that the cost of implementing the protection that's needed before the pandemic is over might be too expensive.

Scottish Cup
Petrie is determined that this season's Scottish Cup will be played to a finish

TE: That's at the bottom of the pyramid, what about as you rise up the pyramid?

RP: So if you start at the bottom of the pyramid and say there will be no football until the pandemic is over then you start to move into the lower reaches of the leagues. What are the resources of League One and Two? A big part of what they rely on is gate receipts.

The stadiums of some of these clubs are now on a care and maintenance basis. They've closed their stadiums, furloughed their players and have minimised their outgoings. The worst thing for those clubs would be to give false hope about playing games, so they reopen everything, incur more costs and then maybe have to shut it all down again. It's probably easier as you move up the pyramid.

TE: These are some tough messages...

RP: It's unavoidable and it's consistent with the message coming out of government that it's not going be relaxed any time soon. We need to be patient and not feel pressured by football happening elsewhere in other countries where they have more resource than we have. We need to understand what is capable of being done. A majority of what we are all doing is saving lives but we must also make sure we are saving our clubs.

TE: What are the key dates coming up?

RP: We're meeting with the minister on 5 May, we have a Scottish FA board meeting on 14 May, there are decisions that Uefa require by 25 May and we have that 10 June deadline in terms of whether the NHS is still on an emergency footing.

The way forward is very uncertain. We all thought there would be a wee blip and we'd all get over it, but it's continued to roll out in front of us and and we need to be cautious about when and how the game restarts.

TE: You lost out on a big day and a big pay day when the game against Israel was cancelled...

RP: It's in the calendar for latter in the year, but there's no pressure to have it then. Spring of next year would be time enough.

TE: And the Scottish Cup is definitely going to be played to a finish...

RP: Yes, it's our showpiece. We want to play the games, but we don't feel pressure to play them soon. We want them in front of the fans so if that means later in the year or maybe into next year then that's fine. We have to wait until most of the restrictions are over before we have a meaningful and joyful Scottish Cup.

TE: The beard is impressive, by the way. You look like a new man.

RP: Thanks. I might keep it after lockdown.

TE: How's your lockdown been?

RP: Well, I got a dog...

TE: Let me guess... Stanton?

RP: No, he's called Jet. He's a rescue dog, a little fella, 10 years old. Very fit. I need to make sure I get exercise so he's the one who drags me out for my one walk a day. He's a great ball player, actually. He can now trap it with both feet as well as his mouth. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

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