Robbie Neilson: Stopping Hearts training is an 'utterly baffling' move by SFA and SPFL
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson today labelled the club’s training suspension “utterly baffling” as he spoke for the first time about the decision.
Neilson stressed that the ban on sessions by the Scottish FA and Scottish Professional Football League makes no sense and cannot be justified.
Despite Hull City training on the pitches Hearts use at Edinburgh’s Oriam complex today, Neilson and his squad must stay idle after the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group stopped training for all Scottish teams outwith the Premiership until at least August 24.
It is the latest blow to the club following an enforced relegation from the top flight and a bitter legal battle which only ended late last month.
The order to halt training was announced late on Thursday night – almost two weeks after Hearts began pre-season training – following breaches of coronavirus rules by Aberdeen and Celtic players.
Hearts’ youth academy players will return to training as of Monday, but the rule on over-18s means the club cannot host sessions for their senior squad.
Neilson explained that his club invested a six-figure sum of money to meet all guidelines and protocols around health, safety and testing.
“From a football point of view, it obviously makes it very difficult,” lamented Neilson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We’ve just had two weeks of really good training and a positive response from the players.
“We are trying to put last season and everything that went on over the close season behind us, but this just takes us almost back to square one.
“We were given permission to return to training on August 3, as was every other team that wasn’t already training. We were the team who decided to go and do it.
“We spent a lot of money doing it – taking people off furlough, adhering to protocols, getting all the testing done. Then we got the news on Thursday night and it’s so disappointing.
“The club have said a fair bit about it already and I’m sure they will say more in the future about it. However, from a football perspective, it’s just baffling that this can be done.
“At the training ground today, we aren’t allowed to train but Hull City are there doing their sessions on the same pitches. It just doesn’t make sense and I think everyone would agree with that.
“It will be interesting to see what the SFA and SPFL come out with over the next couple of days to justify the decision. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing there to justify it at all.
“The decision to stop everyone outside the top flight playing football is hard to believe. That’s not just talking about professional teams or part-time teams, that’s everyone involved in football over the age of 18.
“This is our job but in an amateur team people are playing for enjoyment, for fitness and for the psychological side of it. For the SFA and SPFL to just all of a sudden take that away is, in my opinion, utterly baffling.”
Neilson added that he cannot understand why a safety audit of the Riccarton complex could not take place now to let Hearts continue with their pre-season programme.
The Joint Response Group are allowing Glasgow City Women to train whilst their facilities and safety measures are assessed.
“I think everyone would agree with that,” he said. “My thoughts are that, if you want to return to training, you have to be audited and carry out the protocols to train properly.
“Hearts are at Scotland’s national performance centre. We are based at the newest and best training ground in the country. We have a team from England allowed to train there but we aren’t because they won’t audit us.
“The SFA and SPFL are going to audit Glasgow City Women and let them continue training, but they won’t audit anyone else. Again, that doesn’t make sense.
“I don’t know if things will change, if they will see sense or if they realise the magnitude of what they’ve done. This is not just from our perspective, this is from everyone below the Premiership, down to junior football and amateur football.
“This is not acceptable. Next week, all our academy teams will be back training. So every lad under the age of 18 can come in and train at Oriam but nobody over 18 can kick a ball.
“If you are 17 and 11 months, you can train. If you are 18 and one day, you can’t train. It just doesn’t make any sense at all but a lot of things haven’t made sense with the SFA and SPFL in the last six months.
“We keep saying things can’t get any worse but they just seem to all the time.”
The Hearts players are equally astounded that their pre-season schedule has been paused by order of the football authorities. Neilson admitted they initially thought it was all a joke.
“We had a Zoom call last night about it and at the start of it the players thought it was a wind-up,” said the manager. “It was such a surprise because we were only told about half an hour before the decision was made public.
“We had no idea what was going on. We were asking some questions and we got our medical officer to ask questions. We were told answers would come ASAP but it didn’t help us at all.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on. It’s all over the shop. We went through one period of uncertainty over the summer. We thought we had put that to bed and moved on, and all of a sudden it’s back again through no fault of our own.”
A message from the Editor: Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our advertisers – and consequently the revenue we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism. Subscribe to the Edinburgh Evening News online and enjoy unlimited access to trusted, fact-checked news and sport from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Visit https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.