They say that a week is a long time in football, and that’s certainly true. But a year is a long time in any field, and when you look back on where you were 12 months ago it can be difficult to believe that such an amount of time has elapsed.
I cannot believe where we were twelve months ago.
The title race had narrowed, but Ibrox still had a slight advantage.
Celtic were riding high, but injuries were piling up. We were due to face the Ibrox club at home in early January and although most of us were looking forward to it there were some concerns over who we might have available for it.
And then something happened which changed the equation. It is worth looking back to remember exactly what that was and why it led to the changes it did.
The COVID variant that we call Omicron came late that year, only being detected in November. It started out in South Africa. By 26 November it had already been highlighted as a “variant of concern” because initial estimates suggested that it spread much more readily than the other versions and was capable of evading standard vaccines.
The following day, Omicron cases were confirmed in the UK and across several other countries in Europe. On 29 November, Scotland confirmed its first cases with a couple in Lanarkshire and in Greater Glasgow; we had six cases here overall.
By 3 December the BMA was publishing data from South Africa which proved that Omicron was a super-transmissible variant, and data from elsewhere suggested that it might have retained its lethality. Which would have been beyond disastrous because it had the ability to circumvent the protections offered by previous infection and vaccination.
I keep a close eye on this stuff, and I was following data from around the world, much of it put together by amateur number crunchers, who were looking at the trends and started publishing stuff that was cautiously optimistic. They didn’t believe that Omicron was anywhere near as virulent as the early South Africa data suggested; they pointed out that South Africa had, at that time, one of the lowest vaccination take ups anywhere in the world.
The scary moment came on 13 December, when we had our first official Omicron death. At that point I knew that the government would not take chances because they couldn’t. In spite of all the cautious positivity too much was unknown.
This thing spread like lightning. If we were behind the curve in terms of hospitalisations and deaths we wouldn’t know if for weeks, and if we did nothing until that because obvious we’d be in a lot of bother.
Not only was it clear what football would have to do – drastically reduce attendances at best, and possibly even empty grounds entirely again – but I was pretty sure of what Celtic would want to do if they did so. Having examined a lot of the online numbers I was fairly sure that we weren’t facing the Andromeda Strain, but I wouldn’t have gambled lives on it.
Neither did the Scottish Government. By the third week in December there were 600 confirmed Omicron cases here, and the need for action was clear. There were obviously many thousands more cases which weren’t yet documented.
I wasn’t working from secret information; they saw the numbers I did and they had reached the obvious conclusion from them; three more weeks would tell the tale one way or the other, and the key, in the meantime, was to limit interactions between people.
On 21 December, in an address widely briefed in advance, Nicola Sturgeon limited gatherings indoors to 100 people and events outdoors to 500, until mid-January, whilst they examined the trends for evidence of what Omicron was doing.
Scottish Rugby immediately announced that it would play behind closed doors. The Edinburgh Hogmanay event was cancelled. The Celtic Park game against the Ibrox club looked as if it would need to be played in front of a grotesquely limited crowd.
But I knew none of that was going to happen, not when there was an easy solution to hand, and I had a feeling that Celtic would push for it along with other clubs. It was simple. Bring the start of the Winter Break forward a week. Nice and easy. No harm done.
Government restrictions were not due to kick in until 26 December. Celtic and other clubs moved fast. They convened a meeting for the day after Sturgeon’s announced and at that meeting they decided that after the Boxing Day games the shutdown would come into effect.
Almost all of Scottish football was unified in applauding the measure.
It was sensible. It minimised the disruption to supporters and safeguard two massive games – the Edinburgh and Glasgow derbies – and gave the fans a chance to watch both of them in normal circumstances.
I was so convinced by what I was reading online that I predicted that the three week timeframe would allow the Scottish Government to evaluate the data and lift the restrictions.
The surprise, therefore, was profound when it was discovered that two SPFL clubs had not been in favour of changing the winter break; Ross County and the one from Ibrox. Ross County’s stance remains a bit of a mystery to this day, but Ibrox didn’t even try to hide what its own bitching and moaning was motivated by.
They believed Celtic had orchestrated the shut-down to suit ourselves. They briefed the press on their anger, Van Bronckhorst went in front of the media and bitched a bit about it and Allan McGregor delivered this selfish arseholes response. “We all know sporting integrity is one of the biggest things in Scotland. I don’t see why we just didn’t go on as planned.”
The snark about “sporting integrity” reveals how little he and his club give a shit for that or ever will. And he didn’t see why we didn’t go on as planned? When every social contact risked spreading a new variant of a deadly disease.
You cannot say that they are not consistent. They are the club which breached testing protocols during the season of empty grounds, and before that they opposed finishing the season in any other way than in front of full stadiums, regardless of how many died.
To this day, their forums burn with fury on this matter. One of their fans was ranting and raving about vaccine passports during an anti-SNP diatribe at the AGM the other day, and who knows where that would have gone had his own directors not cut him off and moved on to the next point? I do know that their fan-base still believes – aided and abetted by the attitude of the club – that the whole thing was manufactured because we had some injuries.
But we weren’t running the Scottish Government, and they acted wholly responsibly in limiting public interactions in a scenario where doing otherwise could have brought the country’s hospitals to the brink and plunged us all into the darkness of another lengthy lockdown. Omicron turned out to be what some of the online community correctly said; something more virulent but less aggressive, in some ways the perfect mutation, one that spread easily but even with its ability to get around the vaccines was vastly less dangerous.
But no-one knew that at the time, and considering how swiftly it moved through populations I still don’t see what other option the Scottish Government had.
Football took the right decision to shut everything down. Aberdeen’s chairman estimated that the restrictions would have cost his club £500,000. Alan Burrows of Motherwell painted a picture for his own club that was equally grim. Chairmen acted responsibly and gave fans an opportunity to watch their teams when the winter shutdown ended.
And it turned out just so. By the time those three weeks were up the picture was clearer, the restrictions were abolished and we move forward and never looked back. The government here has never imposed any further measures in 12 months.
I got my boosters in January. I still caught Omicron a month or so later. The effects were so modest that I barely felt it. Everyone in my household got it with me; it was every bit as easy to spread as the early reports suggested. But I slept for a day and no-one else in the house had even modest symptoms. That variant could have been Very Bad News.
By the time games kicked off again, some of our injured players had returned. We bedded two new signings into the team; Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley. They both made an immediate impact. On the night before the Ibrox club came to Celtic Park a team-sheet leak revealed that both of them would play in the match. Their websites were cock-a-hoop.
One fan branded it “the weakest Old Firm midfield in history.” Even excluding his wrong-headed use of that ugly phrase that might have been the stupidest prediction since Hitler talked about the Soviet Union collapsing if he “kicked in the door.”
So yeah, thinks worked out well for us there but this was no conspiracy to do anything other than protect people and save lives, and in football to keep clubs from losing a lot of money. Some at Ibrox will just never accept that.
To them this will always be an example of the Unseen Hand hard at work. Yeah, because our global fan-base has a side-line in biological weapons manufacture and manipulating whole governments to do our will.
It is astonishing what these Peepul believe.