The argument between Celtic and the Scottish Government over our trip to Dubai has been raging back and forth between the two organisations for the past 24 hours, in public and in private.
We’re at the point now where it’s descended into a free-for-all of blame tossing and finger pointing.
None of it is particularly edifying.
Celtic is on the end of a PR hammering, and it no longer matters to many people whether we played by the rules or strayed outside of them. The whole affair makes our judgement look seriously flawed and our club’s position look grotesque.
My own view on this is clear enough; we made a dreadful error in judgement by going ahead with this trip, and that’s me putting it mildly.
I cannot believe the arrogance it displays, the rampant egotism, the complete disregard for what other people might think of it.
At a time when millions of folk are seeing their lives become ever more restricted, I cannot conceive of what possessed people inside Parkhead to think that this was ever going to be anything but a PR train wreck.
We’ve had it all this season already. I though the ultimate symbol of the club’s contempt for its own fans was going to be the pictures of those fences up in front of the Celtic Way.
I would not have believed that it could be topped as a visual image of a board of directors who are totally out of touch with reality. I was wrong. This whole shabby affair, and those poolside images, are even more revealing of the ways those running Celtic see things.
The headline from today is that we haven’t broken the rules.
There is a lot of toing and froing going on over this, but having listened to Nicola Sturgeon on it I am 100% sure that what we’ve done is in keeping with the regulations which were in place in November last year and which haven’t been altered since then.
Now, listen … that’s a point I need to go over again before the end of this piece, but for now it’s enough to know we broke no rules.
But really, that’s never been the issue for me or for a lot of other people.
The idea that we might have only arose last night when the Scottish Government started demanding that the SFA look into this matter. It was never the principle concern and it isn’t now.
So let’s, for a moment, try and untangle all this because there are claims and counter-claims flying about. Whilst I’m happy we’ve not broken the rules, it’s not the end of the matter.
Let’s start with the Scottish Government’s statement yesterday;
“While there are travel exemptions in place for elite sports which are designed to facilitate international and European competition, if we feel they are being abused, we won’t hesitate to remove this privilege.”
Celtic’s statement said this;
“The training camp was arranged a number of months ago and approved by all relevant footballing authorities and Scottish Government through the Joint Response Group on November 12, 2020. The team travelled prior to any new lockdown being in place, to a location exempt from travel restrictions. The camp, the same one as we have undertaken for a number of years has been fully risk assessed. If the club had not received Scottish Government approval, then we would not have travelled.”
When I read both of those statements I believed that someone was not playing it straight.
In fact, both sides are factually correct.
Celtic hasn’t broken the rules, but by God we have taken advantage of a loophole in them big enough to drive a Mac semi through.
The Scottish Government is right to say the exemptions exist for competitive games.
An intercontinental Jolly Boys Outing, is not a valid reason for an exemption.
If you think that’s pretty cut and dry the First Minister either clarified it or muddied the waters further today when she was forced to answer questions on this as part of her daily press briefing.
The First Minister made it clear that training camps were allowed, and that this was discussed again in November. She basically said that this had been put at the discretion of the SFA.
Which ups the ante here and then some, and turns it into an even bigger free for all.
That’s the reality of how big a shambles this whole thing has become.
Let’s try to see it from the Scottish Government’s perspective for a moment.
The football bubble is a regulatory framework which no other industry in the country is protected by. To say that the sport has been treated favourably is an understatement.
But as the saying goes, with power comes responsibility.
Their suggestion that Celtic has behaved with gross irresponsibility and a tin ear for public opinion is 100% spot on. It’s irrefutable.
Even if all this was agreed months ago, the idea of it reeks.
The whole notion that professional footballers should be allowed to fly halfway across the world on a mini-break is staggeringly offensive to the millions of people in this country whose own lives have been put on pause.
It takes my breath away that Celtic is the club that’s done this.
Those who defend it on the grounds that “those players will be working hard over there” need to do a little research on A Day In The Life Of A Professional Footballer. We’re not talking about guys who will be over there doing basic military training, out all day sweating it on the assault course or on an over-night march with a full rucksack.
Footballers train for a few hours a day, usually in the morning.
Now, I am not knocking how hard they work and train in that time; it is intensive. It has to be.
The rest of the time, these guys will spend poolside.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this doesn’t have some benefits; it’s good for morale and for team-building.
Just don’t let anyone kid you it’s a slog.
This is, effectively, a mini-holiday, the sort the average punter will not get for a very long time. That is why so many of our fans and the fans of other clubs, and folk in the media, and folk in the political sphere, are up in arms about it.
The Scottish Government points out that the football bubble wasn’t made for this.
They are correct.
Yet, still, there was a provision in the regulations which allows for “elite training camps.” The clause is there, it exists, and Celtic has taken advantage of it. We’ve squeezed through a loophole.
It’s like Andy Dufrene on the plate factory roof advising Byron Hadley to give his sudden inheritance to his wife as a gift because then the IRS can’t touch a penny of it.
As long as there are loopholes people are going to exploit them.
You see it in every walk of life.
Quite often it’s low-key and under the counter, drawing no attention, and then there’s something like this which is brazen and in your face and makes you question how these special exemptions ever come to be written in the first place.
The training camp exemption was written, like most regulations are, more in the hope than the expectation that everyone would abide by the spirit of the rules and not just the letter of them.
It was intended for clubs preparing for tournaments; I suspect it was written specifically with the national team in mind at the end of this campaign, in preparation for the Euros.
It was not so that teams in the middle of competitions who fancied a wee jaunt could have one under the cover of “training.”
There was no essential purpose to this.
Celtic’s statement doesn’t even claim one, except for the stunningly arrogant assertion that “we do this every year” as though there has been nothing exceptional at all about the last 12 months.
If we had a winter’s break this year, I may have understood it to an extent, although I’d still have thought it utter folly and pretty outrageous, and I would not have wanted us to go.
But we’re in the middle of a normal football week here. We moved a game to fit this in, and we lost a chance to play one of those games in hand that gives the league table its insurmountable look.
Callum McGregor has defended the Dubai trip by saying the warm weather means that players come back fitter and stronger; it apparently has great effects on the heart.
I mean, this is the argument and it’s a plausible one. But you only need to do two minutes of research online to find there’s an equally strong body of evidence that cold weather training has a similar effect.
The truth is, Celtic will try to justify this in as many ways as they can, and top of the list is that the players will benefit from it in some way or another, whether they come back more fit (which I think is a highly dubious claim when they are over there for only a week and training only part of the time) or more relaxed or having got to know each other better … these are the arguments that the club will deploy and which a lot of people will accept.
But really, they all amount to the same thing; this is a trip away.
This is a break from Scotland and the cold and the realities of life and all the various things that are going on which make the world seem like a less happy place to be right now.
I would be saying fair play to them if we weren’t where we are.
If we weren’t in the middle of the pandemic and the lockdown.
Because those are the same reasons we’d all like a holiday, the same reasons we’d all like a bit of sun and a beer by the pool.
The real reason we’re over there, as Celtic itself has confirmed in the statement, and as Callum McGregor has confirmed in his, is that the club has made this an annual thing and they weren’t going to be denied it, not by anybody, not by anything.
The scrapping of the winter break wasn’t going to change it.
The busy schedule wasn’t going to deprive them of it.
Not even a global pandemic and travel bans, not the prospect of a negative press, not the egregious insult to the population which has to stay at home, nor the appearance of being totally out of touch with reality was going to prevent this trip.
People at Celtic wanted to do it, and therefore nothing else mattered.
Some have tried to draw a parallel with Bolingoli, but that doesn’t stand up.
The closest one we have for this is what Dominic Cummings did.
He was equally brazen, he went on the offensive and he refused to accept that even if his explanation wasn’t riddled with contradictions that it was the hypocrisy of it which staggered people, the idea that there was one rule for the elite and another for them.
It’s a Tory idea, it’s a right-wing construct.
Well we’ve long known that this was the operating theory of our board. It’s presumably why they’re so relaxed about what’s going on at Ibrox; the strong do what they will and if the little people don’t like it, then that’s just tough.
Having the right doesn’t make something right.
Celtic wanted to do this, and so they did, just as Cummings wanted to take his trip to Barnard Castle with the wife and to Hell with what anybody thought about it.
He too, of course, exploited a loophole so as not to have broken the law and he pretty much said “Everyone else could have done this, so why are you having a go at me?”
Which brings me, finally, to the SFA and their own part in this fiasco.
They might have had regulations in place in November, but it was only a week or so later that much of Scotland was put into a series of higher tiers. Didn’t that prompt a rethink?
Or was it a case of “well the decision is made now, so why bother?”
When Christmas was cancelled, when regulations were tightened, when the whole country was confirmed as going into a Tier Four shutdown, didn’t it dawn on anybody at the SFA that perhaps the rules should be looked at again?
I agreed with how they handled last season, I think they got a raw deal over that, but the laziness and laxness in terms of putting in place real regulations and a decent regulatory framework for this season has been a fiasco.
I understand why other clubs – particularly those facing points deductions – are furious about this trip and demanding answers.
Unfortunately, they are asking the wrong people.
The SFA rules allowed this just as they allow a club at Ibrox to spend money it doesn’t have, just as they allow referees with obvious allegiances to officiate games involving their clubs.
Until clubs get serious about reform, this is what we to endure.