Worst possible start to Hearts' Premiership return as Covid 19 disrupts pre-season plans

With society reopening across Scotland, the rise in Covid 19 cases shouldn’t be regarded as a surprise. There will be more to come to disrupt football at all levels in the weeks and months ahead.
A hand sanitiser station in the stand at Tynecastle Park.A hand sanitiser station in the stand at Tynecastle Park.
A hand sanitiser station in the stand at Tynecastle Park.

It is simply a situation which will require strong and sensible management from the Scottish Government, the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League.

For Hearts, five positive tests this week is the last thing needed just as pre-season matches are due to begin. The Edinburgh club worked hard throughout the last 12 months to overcome the devastation of an enforced relegation and return to the Premiership. Their preparations for that step up have now been interrupted.

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Players and staff who contracted Covid 19 are in self-isolation after Friday’s friendly at Berwick Rangers was cancelled. It has still to be confirmed whether Saturday’s visit to Linlithgow Rose can go ahead. The spread of the virus is a concern which cannot be underestimated following more than 10,000 deaths in Scotland alone.

It is worth nothing that Thursday saw the highest ever number of cases recorded in this country – 2999 – although hospitalisations are at a manageable level due to the vaccination programme. In a football context, many players aren’t fully vaccinated yet as they are in the younger age category.

Hearts wanted to hit the ground running this summer, hence arranging friendlies before the end of June, and ensure the best possible chance of a strong start to the 2021/22 campaign. Competitive matches start in the Premier Sports Cup away at Peterhead on July 10 before the Premiership begins on July 31 with Celtic visiting Tynecastle Park.

An important season lies ahead for manager Robbie Neilson and his squad, who aim to finish in the top half of the table. In time, they want to push for a return to European football after an absence of five years.

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Their preparations were to be extensive but they must wait until Covid cases subside. The football department at Riccarton might even need to enter a mini hibernation period to ensure health and safety remains the ultimate priority.

Of course, pre-season interruptions are nothing new to Hearts officials during this pandemic. Last August, they were forced to stop training for ten days as the SFA/SPFL Joint Response Group suspended sessions for all teams outwith the top flight – despite Covid rule breaches taking place among clubs within the top flight.

Neilson and the players recovered from that debacle and won the Championship title. Now focused solely on preparing to rejoin Scotland’s elite, this latest issue comes at an inopportune time for those within the club. Perhaps it is better that the outbreak arose now than in four weeks time as that Celtic match loomed, but it is nonetheless far from ideal.

Track and trace measures will be in place to try to limit further spread of Covid around Riccarton, Tynecastle and beyond. All Hearts can do is sit tight and hope the isolation periods have the desired effect.

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They are not the first Scottish club to be hit by a Covid outbreak, nor are they likely to be the last.

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