Scottish football narrowly avoided a catastrophic government intervention after eight Aberdeen stars were caught partying in a coronavirus hotspot.
Record Sport understands the Pittodrie club was on the brink of being forced into a two week lockdown by politicians and health experts after two of Derek McInnes’ players tested positive for Covid-19 following a team night out in the cluster hit city centre.
But, after late night crisis talks between Holyrood and Hampden’s Joint Response Group, it was agreed that the Dons will be permitted to take a heavily depleted squad to St Johnstone for Saturday's live TV showdown - so long as no more cases are confirmed within their squad in the next 24 hours.
McInnes had to abandon a training session on Thursday following the first positive test and the furious manager immediately ordered an internal probe. Seven more team-mates admitted to being out on the town on Saturday night following a 1-0 defeat at home to Rangers on the opening day of the Premiership season.
It’s understood the entire squad then had to undergo a further round of swabs and that one player later posted a second positive test although he is awaiting the result of a follow up screening by the NHS.
All eight disgraced players were ordered to return home immediately and put themselves under house arrest in strict self isolation.
But, while mortified club bosses hoped their stringent action might help calm the situation, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon convened an emergency meeting during which a plan to padlock Pittodrie for a fortnight, along with the club’s training facilities was discussed.
It was only after further crisis talks with the Joint Response Group that permission was given for Aberdeen to play on - despite a local lockdown across the Granite City which came into force from 5pm on Monday closing bars and restaurants and restricting travel to no more than five miles.
The clusters erupted around packed pubs in the city centre and Record Sport revealed on Wednesday that a number of Aberdeen players were spotted mingling with Saturday night revellers.
Holyrood advisers believe the players were in breach of the ‘return to training’ protocol which was specially drafted to allow top flight football to return to action on August 1.
A statement released from Hampden confirmed: “In light of the First Minister’s increased restrictions imposed on the city of Aberdeen since a significant outbreak of COVID-19 this week, and following further investigation by NHS Grampian’s Health Protection Team, the Scottish Government has instructed that both players will require to self-isolate, along with a further six players found to have been in close proximity to the initial positive player.
“The initial positive player will require to self-isolate for 10 days from yesterday, with the remaining seven players to self-isolate for 14 days from yesterday.
“This instruction for self-isolation has been unanimously endorsed by the Joint Response Group. In light of the action taken, and after consultation with Scottish Government, Aberdeen’s Scottish Premiership match against St Johnstone on Saturday will go ahead as scheduled.
SFA president Rod Petrie said: “As we have said from the outset, public health is the absolute priority of the Joint Response Group. As soon as we were informed of the positive tests, the information was immediately referred to the Scottish Government via our Chief Medical Consultant.
“Given the well-documented outbreak in Aberdeen it was imperative that we took the swiftest action to enable the local Health Protection Team to respond immediately.
“The Scottish Government’s advice to the JRG was clear and unequivocal, as was our support of that advice. Given the circumstances, we issue the strongest possible message to all clubs to ensure compliance with the twice-weekly testing procedure and Scottish football’s Return to Playing Protocol. It is imperative that everyone adheres to Scottish Government public health advice.”
It’s understood McInnes is also furious with the players while red faced chairman Dave Cormack apologised to the game’s governing bodies as the scale of the breach was becoming evident.
Aberdeen later released a statement in which Cormack said: “After Saturday’s game, with all eyes on Pittodrie, we were once again commended on the stringent processes and measures we had in place. Given the efforts of everyone at the Club and our investment in protecting our most valuable assets, this is a bitter blow.
“With two first team players testing positive for COVID-19, plus six others having to isolate for 14 days, it is also a harsh reminder of the severity and speed of spread of this virus.
“The Club will be carrying out a full investigation but, as an immediate first step, we have reinforced the Club’s COVID-19 protocols and the governing bodies’ guidance with every player and member of staff and will continue to regularly educate and remind everyone of what is, and what is not, acceptable in the current climate.
“We now have to focus on preparing for Saturday’s game under extremely difficult circumstances.”
An enforced shut down - preventing Aberdeen from playing against St Johnstone, Hamilton and champions celtic over the next eight days - would have caused chaos across the Premiership as clubs were already facing up to a heavily congested match schedule.
One Hampden source said: “The SPFL is bracing itself for a car crash in terms of this season’s fixture list with the possibility that clubs may be forced to play four games in eight days once the Scottish winter kicks in and the inevitable postponements follow.
“So the prospect of having to reschedule matches because of this breach by a handful of Aberdeen’s players would have created a major headache as well as a huge amount of embarrassment both for the club concerned and for the Scottish game in general.
“It’s incredible that a group of players would chose to act in such an irresponsible manner given everything their club has been doing to keep them safe in the face of this pandemic.
“To say the government has been understanding here would be a massive understatement given the circumstances they are currently dealing with in the face of a global pandemic.”