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Danny Stewart: Lingering effects of Covid-19 could end this season’s Scottish Cup

© SNS GroupThere might be no Cup Final at all, let alone a fairytale like Inverness CT winning the trophy in 2014,
There might be no Cup Final at all, let alone a fairytale like Inverness CT winning the trophy in 2014,

“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”

The classic line from The Godfather Part III has ageing crime boss, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino), railing against the Mafia’s refusal to allow him to go legit.

Used in a wide variety of different contexts over the three decades since the film’s release, it came to mind over the past few days in relation to how Covid-19 is affecting football.

After the comparative peace and renewed optimism of early autumn, the virus’s second wave has proved every bit as bad as feared.

The effects have been felt throughout general life – and in Scottish football – the latter an environment which, for long periods, had looked to have been largely insulated from the worst impacts of the pandemic.

True, the crowds were absent, but the show had gone on.

In fact, as the months had ticked by – and with clubs combining to serve up one of the most-dramatic seasons of recent memory – there were times when it was almost possible to put the virus out of your mind.

Scotland’s qualification for the Euros, a stunning switch in the balance of power from Celtic to Rangers, plus a host of other intriguing plots and sub-plots have kept the country gripped – all from a decidedly anti-social distance.

There have been some brilliant matches where the lack of fans has made almost no perceivable difference to the spectacle.

Think here of the Scottish Cup Final, held back from last season, which saw Celtic and Hearts go all the way to a penalty shoot-out before the Hoops edged it to complete their Quadruple Treble.

Just three weeks later, it was the turn of the 2020-21 Scottish Cup to produce a belter with Bonnyrigg Rose of the Lowland League coming within seconds of pulling off what would have been one of the biggest shocks ever by beating Dundee at Dens Park.

At a time when there is little else going on, football has been a great distraction.

Sadly, though, in recent weeks reminders that the virus remains a clear and present danger to the sport, as well as to the lives of those follow it, have been everywhere you turn.

© SYSTEM
The season draws<br />comparisons with Al Pacino in Godfather 3.

We have had all football below Championship level suspended for three weeks due to the rising number of cases.

League 1, League 2 and Scottish Cup fixtures were all put into cold storage, along with the Highland and Lowland Leagues and women’s football.

While clubs in the top two tiers played on, they have now been asked by the Joint Response Group to review their Covid-19 protocols.

Kilmarnock, too, have raised financial concerns by announcing they will apply for a £1-million loan from the Scottish Government to enable them to see the season out.

The Ayrshire club, along with St Mirren, have already been successful in having an SPFL decision to award 3-0 defeats against them for Covid breaches overturned by a SFA judicial panel.

And, talking of the Scottish Government, Celtic’s controversial trip to Dubai, and it’s after-effects, kept the front pages filled for days.

Small wonder.

Neil Lennon’s claim that politics, not public health, had driven the decision for 16 Celtic players and staff to self-isolate after Christopher Jullien had contracted the virus, was explosive stuff.

It drew a sharp response from Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, who said he held no ill-will against the Hoops manager, but found his comments “absolutely appalling”.

The issue has been put to bed for now, but the suspicion lingers that Covid-19 conversations will dominate the football landscape in the weeks and months to come.

Generally upbeat about the prospects of the Premiership being played to a finish, Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch, has warned it is important not to forget just how quickly things can change in a pandemic.

Given that fact, this season’s Scottish Cup could be at risk.

Open to clubs of all levels, it is more vulnerable to the vagaries of virus than the elite top-flight.

At the moment, the plan is for new dates to be found for the raft of ties that were due next weekend, but postponed due to health concerns.

However, with the possibility of weather and further Covid-19 issues creating a fixtures pile-up, the fear would be it reaches a stage where it becomes clear the competition cannot be played to conclusion.

At that point, the SFA would have a decision to make.

They could push back outstanding fixtures into the 2021-22 campaign, using the playing of the 2019-20 semi-finals and Final this season as a precedent.

Or they could simply declare this season’s Scottish Cup null and void, a phrase – even in the context of an entirely different competition – that’s enough to give Rangers fans a wee shudder.

Why?

Because – with apologies to Michael Corleone – barring outside interference, it is now impossible to see Steven Gerrard’s men being pulled back in on their march to the title.