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Jamie Durent: Nairn County’s Covid episode can serve as a timely reminder

Nairn County chairman Donald Matheson at Station Park.
Nairn County chairman Donald Matheson at Station Park.

Donald Matheson took the call in a supermarket car park.

The Nairn County chairman, a plumber and heating engineer by trade, was on a lunch break, relishing the return of supporters to Station Park later on Tuesday evening in a friendly with Caley Thistle.

But then the news came from Ian Finlayson, the club secretary and Covid officer: one of their players had tested positive for coronavirus after experiencing symptoms at work.

Kick-off was only hours away; the game was the first thing to be scrubbed. NHS Highland was alerted and track-and-trace procedures initiated. At that stage, the league opener, a much-anticipated derby with Clach, was still on.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Matheson, who has been in post for the last four years. “I was grabbing a sandwich for lunch and Ian phoned me, saying how many of the squad had effectively been locked down. I couldn’t speak. I was dumbstruck.

“It’s stealth. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, until it’s too late. I do not think there’s a thing you could do about it.”

Finlayson was the main point of contact. The Highland League was kept informed with last-minute Zoom calls – is there any other way in Covid times?

The worst-case scenario was soon realised two days later when 15 Nairn players were ordered to isolate, effectively rendering their participation in last Saturday’s game impossible.

Discussions with the health authorities, where Nairn laid out the Scottish FA protocols they had been adhering to, brought stumbling blocks.

Finlayson said: “Potentially, the Covid committee (of the Highland League) and the SFA have to liaise better with the health authorities because there’s been a slight clash between the NHS and football.

“We’ve been doing it for weeks with training and friendlies, but they (NHS) didn’t seem to know anything about it until we sent them the protocols. Something has been missed there. But after sitting down and looking at it again, give them their dues they have helped.

“It brought into doubt the training regime we and the rest of the league have implemented from the SFA. They’re going by their rules, we’re going by the SFA rules and it seems nobody’s talked to each other about them. Is it a miscommunication, or somebody just wasn’t aware of it? I don’t know.

“We’ve had to ride it out and it’s been particularly stressful for all involved.”

Nairn County were due to start the Highland League season at home to Clachnacuddin on Saturday.

Luigi Capuano, the SFA’s Covid officer, fought the club’s corner. By Friday evening, six of those 15 players, initially identified as close contacts, were freed from their self-isolation after explanations of Nairn’s safeguarding measures were accepted by the NHS.

However, it came too late for the Clach game. Much to the Wee County’s relief, it was postponed rather than the league pushing for the points to be awarded to their rivals from Inverness.

But it was due to be their first league game, with up to 300 spectators present as a result of being in a Level 1 area under Scottish Government restrictions.

At this stage Nairn remain optimistic of having enough players available for the away trip to Keith this coming weekend. But part-time clubs have been given a timely reminder of just how precarious the situation.

Part-time players are not subject to testing, as stated by the SFA’s return to play protocols. Doing so would impose costs on clubs which Matheson says would “run them into the ground.”

But with players existing outwith the sporting bubble, with livelihoods to earn, the chance of them contracting the virus and not knowing it increase. Nairn will almost certainly not be the last club to have a week like this.

Matheson said: “It’s happened to us and we’ve been nailed to the post for it. But no doubt there’ll be more in the coming weeks and months.

“The SFA were good enough to adjust the protocols for the lower-tier teams to get back to football. We’re in a Level 1 area, so there’s less likelihood of someone getting it.

“We’ve almost got the best of both worlds in that respect. But hopefully it makes people aware it’s still out there, it’s still in the Highlands.”

Several players have got themselves tested and, mercifully for them and the club, no more positive tests have been found.

Calls of support have come in from around the league and stress levels have returned towards normal. Matheson has a great deal of gratitude to the Highland League and SFA for their assistance.

He said: “I’ve still got a heap of questions and I’m hopeful of getting answers. What we’ve done, we want to make sure we’ve done right.

“Luigi Capuano at the SFA was quite happy with our protocols and said we’re actually doing more than what’s specified. We’re trying to do more than we need just to cover bases, but we’ve still been sucker-punched out of the blue.

“There’s no blame culture at the club – it’s just very unfortunate circumstances.

“You just don’t know what’s knocking at your door. It didn’t knock for us, it booted it.”

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