SPARTANS returned to training on Monday, three months ahead of the new winter Scottish Building Society SWPL1 season which will start in mid-October. The revised schedule will be officially confirmed this week, with the league running through until May, and the League Cup being played in June.

Hamilton also resumed limited work-outs on Wednesday, and other clubs are making plans despite the continuing restrictions. Full training is not allowed without prohibitive testing costs – so why the rush to return when the new season is still almost three months away?

“When I looked at the logistics of it, and the amount of work which would have to be done, the easier option would have been to wait until September and do a six or seven-week pre-season,” Spartans head coach Debbi McCulloch admitted.

“But deep down I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. The players were really struggling not being together and not seeing each other on the pitch – so I thought we’re going to make this happen.

“We’ll maybe do it for four weeks and then have another wee break before we can do contact training. I was absolutely shattered on Monday night after working the whole weekend to put everything in place, but when I sat down to look at my phone some of the players were texting me to say how glad they were to be back.”

McCulloch’s principal role is business and operations manager of the Spartans Academy at Ainslie Park, and in that capacity she has been working throughout the pandemic. The Edinburgh operation is a shining example of the good work many football clubs do in their communities.

“Unlike the pitches, the facility hasn’t been closed,” McCulloch pointed out. “We turned the academy into a food distribution hub one day after lockdown.

“We’ve worked with the local primary schools to give all the children who would normally have free school meals the opportunity to have packed lunches, as well as providing hot meals and family food packs for the last 16 weeks.

“It has been a hugely humbling experience. The academy will always serve the local community, which is one of the most deprived areas in Europe.

“We could have furloughed everybody, but that would have been wrong. I’ve always wanted a new challenge but this has taken it to a new level.

“The big advantage for us is we own our facility. The community pitch has a fence round it so there is a one-way system.

“There are outside toilets as well. We never planned the academy for a pandemic, but our infrastructure works quite well for its requirements.”

The further good news is there will be a new surface for SBS SWPL matches next season. Work on the stadium pitch should be completed this week and McCulloch said: “It’s the same as the new Kilmarnock one, and the best synthetic surface I’ve ever seen.”

Behind the scenes there have also been changes. The club’s constitution was altered to make it easier to attract new investment – and could eventually lead to some Spartans players being offered part-time contracts.

THE pandemic has delayed McCulloch’s 200th game as Spartans head coach, but she feels the return to a winter season is a positive move.

“I’ve always been a supporter of it – and especially after the eleven week break we experienced last year,” she pointed out.

“It felt like were playing two separate seasons.”

While the ramifications of the public health emergency made the first winter season since 2008-09 almost inevitable, the big decision for the future – along with possible league reconstruction – is whether to play a mini-season in the second half of 2021.

That would allow a return to summer seasons from 2022. The alternative, which is favoured by the top clubs, is to make winter seasons permanent.

“I experienced a mini-season in 2009 before we switched from a winter season to a summer one,” McCulloch pointed out. “It just felt like you were playing friendlies and it wasn’t very competitive.

“We don’t have a choice for this year – it has to be a winter season. Compared to the last time there was winter football the majority of clubs now play at good facilities with good artificial surfaces.

“The number of postponements should therefore be minimal. There were some at the start of the year but that wasn’t because of snow – it was the wind.

“Everybody was so excited in February.

“The season had huge promise and potential. Hopefully when it restarts it will have the same feeling as it did back then.”