Gordon Smith: SPFL have got the post-split fixtures just about spot-on

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon (SNS Group / Ross Parker)

I WOULD have loved Celtic to be playing Rangers at Celtic Park this Saturday.

Played at any time in the year, it is a fixture which attracts worldwide attention for its passion and atmosphere.

Held near the death of the campaign with a title on the line – albeit for the hosts only – it becomes a must-see sporting event for television audiences all over the globe.

So I fully understand Brendan Rodgers’ disappointment that the timing of the derby has been delayed until the second game after the split.

However, having played in the 1980 Scottish Cup Final, I also completely appreciate why it can’t happen.

What took place at Hampden Park that day changed everything.

Then, mounted police had to take to the field to combat what was later described as the Scottish game’s worst outbreak of hooliganism in living memory.

Bottles, bricks and cans were used as weapons as pitch invaders battled one another in riotous scenes.

From that moment on, the police have always been the first port of call for the footballing authorities. Ensuring the safety of players, club officials, fans and the general public has been of paramount concern.

With their input and the introduction of early kick-offs etc, things have been getting better. There is no doubt about that.

Equally, though, there is no room for complacency.

Anyone who thinks otherwise, and believes that 1980 was another era and as such is no longer relevant, has only to look back to the 2016 Scottish Cup Final between Hibs and Rangers.

Hibs won the Cup for the first time in 114 years, but again the day will also be remembered for the riot that followed with, shamefully, players attacked as they tried to make their way back to the dressing rooms.

Or, more recently still, to Liverpool 11 days ago where Manchester City’s team bus was vandalised ahead of the clubs’ Champions League quarter-final.

So safety has to come first.

That’s the reason they can’t just work out the fixtures in advance – i.e. in the first game after the split, the Premiership leaders at the end of the regulation season will host the second-placed side and so on.

Personally, having worked as a football administrator myself, I am surprised they didn’t exercise even more caution and schedule the Old Firm derby to be the third game after the split.

For as plenty of fans have had fun pointing out on social media, Celtic failing to get it done against Hibs at Easter Road in the post-split opener, and the issue rolling on a week, would hardly be the biggest surprise.

Neil Lennon’s side have been good all season and have twice shared 2-2 draws with the Hoops.

With the ground packed with their supporters and Lennon having plenty of attacking options at his disposal, it should be a cracker.

Hibs’ run-in is actually one of the reasons why I believe the fixture compilers should be spared criticism.

It seems to have gone unnoticed but they have managed to ensure the three teams chasing second – Hibs, Rangers and Aberdeen – will all play the same number of home and away fixtures over the piece.

Likewise that the four sides battling relegation – Ross County, Partick Thistle, Dundee and Hamilton Accies – are all equally balanced. Both in terms of homes and aways, overall. And in the breakdown of homes and aways between each other in the run-in.

That’s quite a feat and, I would suggest, is probably the reason we witnessed a delay in the announcement.

It was never going to be perfect and Hearts this time were the losers with 18 home games and 20 on the road.

A club statement described the situation as “unacceptable”, and with cash at stake for final league positions it is easy to see why they feel aggrieved at being disadvantaged in comparison to their rivals.

At the same time, it is significant they are not one of the teams battling for the major prizes or, indeed, for their survival in the top flight.

That being the case, I’d suggest this is the least-worst solution.

Bring on the post-split season!

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