At her daily Coronavirus briefing, Nicola Sturgeon decided to pre-empt questions by addressing the decision of Celtic FC to go on a mid-season winter training trip to Dubai.
From 4am this morning, those coming back from the UAE are required to self-isolate for ten days and, after defender Christopher Jullien tested positive, 16 members of the Celtic party, including manager Neil Lennon, will now have to stay at home.
Consequently, Celtic will field a reserve side for Monday evening’s Premiership fixture against Hibernian in Glasgow. When it comes to football and the Old Firm in particular, politicians dance gingerly, knowing that whatever they say will ignite someone’s wrath, which is normally replicated thousands of times over.
The First Minister made her comments with a self-imposed restraint and nod to diplomacy, but her body language gave the game away. She is livid with Celtic and clearly regards their defence as stretching credulity.
For the record, she “takes a slightly different view” from the club over their interpretation of the Covid rules and largely confined criticism to the posing of questions: Was the trip essential? Was it reasonable to travel?
She said she had doubts about whether the trip was essential and questioned whether bubble rules had been adhered to, given some of the pictures that have emerged from Dubai.
Without direct reference to the club, she did, however, say that privileges (for elite sport) can’t be abused. She clearly thinks that Celtic did indeed abuse these privileges. The club say all protocols have been adhered to and that the trip was effectively signed off last November.
Now it could be argued and no doubt is in the Celtic Park boardroom that the club is the unfortunate victim of circumstance. Indeed, in a statement this afternoon, Celtic say “the reality is that a case could well have occurred had the team remained in Scotland, as other cases have done in Scottish football and across UK sport in the past week”. It is impossible to argue with that. Just cite the case of Aston Villa, who had to field a second string team in the FA Cup against Liverpool after positive cases of coronavirus were identified.
That statement also confirmed that the defender Christopher Jullien was the player who had tested positive. Jullien is currently injured and on crutches, adding a farcical quality to the story and begging the simplest of questions: why was he in Dubai at all?
The Celtic statement, however misses the point and spectacularly. The phrase ‘when in a hole stop digging’ comes to mind. You do not have to exercise the exact science of hindsight to conclude the decision to travel to Dubai was incomprehensible.
Forget the line of defence about discussions last November and adhering to protocols.
Was the chief executive asleep when politicians opened a window on Christmas and then slammed it shut with a firm recommendation to stay at home on Christmas day? Did he not realise that the virus was running out of control and the ‘stay at home’ message was for real? Was he paying attention to the weekly, if not near daily, changes to advice on the need to self-isolate when returning from abroad?
What part of the Covid narrative on foreign travel advice did he miss? Quite a lot, appears to be the answer. It is naïve to think that the exemption for elite sport would provide a sufficient explanation and defence to a charge sheet which starts with incompetence and ends with self-inflicted reputational damage.
In short, this should not be about discussions last November or adhering to protocols or publishing statements that open the club to ridicule. Rather the issue is why the exercise of plain common sense eluded Peter Lawwell.