WHEN Donald Trump denounced the assault on Capitol Hill, it was widely regarded as a hostage-like statement, delivered under duress and in no way reflecting his personal views. If he wanted to say what he meant, he should perhaps have taken a lesson from Neil Lennon. When the Celtic manager came out of Covid self-isolation, he was widely expected to apologise for his team’s ill-judged training trip to Dubai, during which 13 players had to go into pandemic purdah.

Instead of showing a scintilla of contrition, Lennon launched into a fusillade of grievance against the criticisms and hypocrisy of those who lambasted the decision to go ahead with the camp, despite the worsening situation at home. Nobody, from the First Minister to the Scottish Football Association, escaped his wrath. Not even the breaking news that another team member had tested positive derailed his self-righteous fury. Theirs, he said, was an entirely legitimate and well-run exercise. The furore, he said, was “all political”.

Maybe it was in some quarters, but for the general public – those who have never heard of Mo Salah or Harry Kane let alone Scott Brown – to see sportsmen heading for the sun at a time of national crisis was astonishing. It starkly reinforced the fact that footballers are an elite for whom the rules are stretched or revised wherever possible. Indeed, the sporting top tier appears to live in a bubble of its own, but not the Covid kind. Just like Novak Djokovic, complaining about having to quarantine in a Melbourne hotel room, these star performers believe they are invincible, that their status and acclaim protects them from criticism, challenge or, indeed, infection.

READ MORE: Vaccinate supermarket staff

To be fair, the scenes of Celtic on their day off by the Dubai poolside were not as shocking as those from the autumn, when the Scottish squad celebrated its Euro 2020 play-off success. In jubilation, they danced a congo like six-year-olds at a party. Since then, viewers of the Premier League have weekly witnessed footage of high-profile players – and in Europe – cuddling and canoodling after every goal and victory. Despite dire levels of British infection, the idea of taking a firebreak pause this season was deemed unthinkable.

Celtic’s miscalculation was to jet off just at the point when everyone else had to hunker down. Their trip might not technically have broken any law, but nor did it uphold the spirit of the times. While they were enjoying sunshine on their backs, ordinary mortals were facing a grim endurance test, and hospitals filling with the sick and dying. As Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly urged, testing the limit of what’s allowable is in nobody’s interests. We should be trying to do as little as possible, not as much. Heading to Dubai certainly falls into the category of pushing the envelope, as does much of the sport’s behaviour in recent weeks.

Lennon’s lack of remorse is not surprising. Across the board there is a sense of entitlement about the football world. It is treated so reverentially you’d be forgiven for assuming it was sacred. While other industries and activities are mothballed until the pandemic is under control, football has been designated a special case. Getting the game back on the pitch has been viewed as an urgent priority, as if the country’s mental health depends upon it. The mere thought of a match makes everyone happy, or so we are told, although clearly that is nonsense. Where I live, Scotland could be playing in the World Cup final, yet few would be glued to their screens. Rugby is an entirely different matter, streets empty during the Calcutta Cup.


So when did football become a barometer of national well-being? To a degree all sport is for the wider good, but nothing beats football for the privilege and leeway allowed, in the name of boosting morale. It seems to be universally accepted that without the chance to cheer on their side, fans would go bonkers with boredom and misery. While some see the vaccine as light at end of the tunnel, for a club’s supporters, watching their side emerge from the tunnel is the stuff of miracles.

I admit, it does feel like a semblance of normality to hear match commentaries on the radio on a Saturday afternoon. For the first half hour I even enjoyed the David and Goliath clash that was Marine v Spurs. Yet while top players are meant to be role models for young men in respect of Covid etiquette, many set a poor example. Spitting, neglecting to mask up, bouncing like popcorn in cramped changing rooms, holding parties, inviting young women into their hotel rooms... the list goes on. Despite all the advantages and privileges football has been accorded during lockdown, still the players – and managers – don’t get it. With notable exceptions such as Marcus Rashford, they are like royalty of old, heedless of what regular people are going through.

READ MORE: We can all enjoy Scotland's hills

By comparison, how do small theatre companies or arts bodies feel – not to mention musicians, writers and artists – to see football clubs asking for government support? In one breath they beg for a handout, while with the next they bid millions for new players. Meanwhile, other players earning tens of thousands of pounds each week sit idle on the bench, like thoroughbreds confined to the stable.

Despite the rise in the women’s game, and a growing number of female fans, football remains a minority and mainly male interest. Almost as many folk attend church as games. Going to the cinema or theatre, listening to live country, blues or classical music or poetry readings, are minority interests too. All of these and countless other art forms and activities are as vital to our sanity as the sight of a penalty shootout.

In Scotland, the so-called beautiful game is a boring two-horse race: Rangers v Celtic (or the Boys’ Brigade v the Scouts, as the Hearts fan I live with calls it). As Celtic might eventually learn, own goals come in many forms. Few, however, are more self-defeating than when the sporting elite loses touch with the real world.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.