WHEN Scottish football was brought to a grinding halt twelve months ago as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on global society became fully realised, most people involved in the sport knew that the year ahead would be an eventful one. The game was entering unchartered territory, after all.

Senior staff at Partick Thistle were no different as they pondered the challenges to come and got ready to meet them head on. That diligence and preparation appears to have paid off as lower league football returns from its second mandatory shutdown in the space of a year this afternoon – almost a year to the day since the first lockdown was introduced – and it’s fair to say that the Jags have had a rather memorable time of it in that period, even if it's one we'd rather all forget. 

But despite the adversity that’s been heaped on the Jags over the last year – whether it be their enforced relegation to the third tier by a margin of 0.04 points, the controversy surrounding league reconstruction and Dundee’s missing vote to call the season, the court case brought against the SPFL, or the distribution of the Government’s financial relief package – there remained a steely determination from the club that better days lay ahead. As chief executive Gerry Britton explains, there was one clear philosophy that has guided Thistle through it all: hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

“Last year, everyone used the phrase ‘unprecedented’ but it didn’t change the way that we worked in terms of our financial planning,” he said. “It was always the worst-case scenario that we worked to. We had four different budgets for two different leagues – one for having fans and one for without. We always work based on the worst case then if anything changes, it’s a positive.

“Our budgeting had started pre-Covid so when the reality of where we were going to be kicked in, we had a plan in place and we knew how to deal with it.

“This even goes back to the players we signed – if you remember January last year, we had quite a busy window. The board made funds available for Ian [McCall] to bolster the squad in an attempt to keep us in the Championship. As part of that, clauses were put in place that if there was a relegation, then there would be a reduction in staffing costs. So we had future-proofed that side of it for a drop into League One.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: Working Group in call to arms to ensure Partick Thistle meet their date with destiny

“We had been working on the prospect of not having fans. We made full use of the furlough scheme when it was available – the players and the staff were furloughed. But these were all considerations we had been making for some time so when the reality sunk in we said, ‘right, we know where we are, let’s just make the best of it’.”

That optimistic approach was difficult to maintain at times, particularly as the SPFL descended into civil war during the spring. Clubs were at each other’s throats and self-interest reigned supreme as teams squabbled over the 2019/20 season’s conclusion. But despite the poisonous atmosphere that polluted the Scottish game, Thistle chairman Jacqui Low insists that the club act in good faith throughout the finger-pointing and recriminations.

She said: “We’ve always been financially prudent. With our budget for example, we don’t put in any income that we don’t have guaranteed. We don’t put in cup monies or things like that so that as we progress and the money comes in, the picture improves.

“We’ve also got a way where we talk about how we’re going to behave in situations. We talk about things that maybe don’t seem important like values and so when we were at the start of the whole process with the SPFL and everything that that was happening, what we were going to do about staff – we did talk about that. You know, ‘how do we remain Partick Thistle and behave in a way that reflects who we are?’.

“I think that’s been guiding us the whole way through everything that we’ve dealt with. There were moments behind the scenes where things were being bounced off walls. There were feet being stomped; there was rage, there was upset, there was all of that. But when we picked our way through it, it was always what was best for the club. Not about how we felt about things – it was more about how we progress forward, move on and protect Partick Thistle.”

It was an approach that paid off for Thistle. When the in-fighting amongst the teams reached a crescendo last summer, barely an hour passed when one club wasn’t flinging accusations at each other via increasingly-lengthy club statements. Despite being situated at the very epicentre of the crisis, Thistle’s official communications were always characterised by a good faith approach and a willingness to work alongside their fellow clubs – something Low feels has boosted the club’s reputation amongst its peers.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: 10/4/13 – The night where everything changed

But the reason for this, she insists, is simple: come the end of it all, senior figures wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and know they did the right thing. Decisions that were taken – such as the one to top up wages from the furlough scheme to ensure no employee was left out of pocket by the pandemic – earned plaudits at the time, reinforcing Low’s belief in the approach.

“It [the response] was encouraging but I would like to think that we would always do the right thing, not the easy thing,” she said. “[Topping up wages] was the right thing to do. We always said that we’d stick together, we’d look after everyone connected with the club and that we’d come out the other end of it together. And despite everything that’s happened over the last year, at every stage we’ve reaffirmed that as a board and a club, that was our direction.

“Whatever got thrown at us, we would try and change it if we could and we made the best of what came next. And I have to say, it’s been remarkable that everyone got behind that. Whether it was the staff, the players, the manager, the fans, whoever – everyone understood that we wanted to be Partick Thistle despite everything that was going on.

“What else can you do but be yourself? I think being honest and open did us no harm, and I think we gained respect from the rest of Scottish football. Even though there were some clubs that made our lives very difficult, we were up front with fans about what we were doing and why.”

Low stops short of naming names but you don’t need to reside at 221B Baker Street to hazard a guess at the identity of at least one of the troublesome clubs. Given the whole controversy surrounding the league’s early conclusion and Dundee’s missing vote that was eventually changed  – effectively relegating the Jags – you’d imagine the Tayside club are top of Low’s naughty list. Even now, the Firhill chair admits that the change of heart caught her off-guard. “We couldn’t figure it out to begin with,” she said.

Britton concurs. “It was the same for everybody: it was totally unexpected,” he said. “We had expected one outcome and then it wasn’t something that we could control. It was out of our hands so we just had to deal with it as best we could and very quickly.”

Once it became clear that reconstruction was no longer a viable option and that the SPFL’s decision was final, Thistle had one last wildcard left to play to overturn their relegation: alongside Hearts and Stranraer, the other two demoted sides, they could take Scottish football’s governing body to court. They lost and the relegations were upheld but Low insists the legal action was more than simple grandstanding. The Jags weren’t trying to make a point: they wholeheartedly believed they could win.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: Agony and ecstasy: Jags legend Kris Doolan reflects on his time at Firhill

“That’s why we did it,” Low explained. “Apart from the chance of winning, there was a need to put it all out there. Gerry and I could be emailing each other at five in the morning – I think between the two of us we probably managed four hours’ sleep a night between us. It was seven days a week. But I think there was a sense that it was the one remaining thing to do so that we could look ourselves in the mirror and say we did everything that we could. And so we did it.”

Despite their protests, Thistle’s fate was sealed. The club put that disappointment behind them and started focussing on the task at hand: gaining promotion to the Championship. The season kicked off in October in a reduced 27-game format but by January, the lower leagues were once again placed in cold storage as Covid-19 grew more prevalent.

The shutdown was disruptive for a whole host of reasons but manager Ian McCall reckons there is one side-effect in particular that has been particularly difficult for players and staff to deal with over those long, lonely and uncertain months: their mental wellbeing.

“It was the not knowing,” he admitted. “One of the things that I think has been incredibly harsh this year has been the treatment of managers by the media. In the last year the job has completely changed – it’s not the same job I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

“Some people get affected by Covid in other ways. I’m not talking about having the virus, I’m talking about in terms of mental health. I know a good few people that have been really affected by it. That goes for players as well. From a mental health perspective, returning to training has really helped the players and you could tell they were really excited on the first day. I really wasn’t sure what workload to give them but everybody is in the same boat I guess.

“Some of the stuff about Derek McInnes and Neil Lennon was scandalous, utterly scandalous. Post-match interview questions – it was just constant, constant, constant. I think there’s been eight or nine managers to have lost their jobs during this period and I think that’s really off. I sometimes think that supporters and media think that managers are indestructible, and they’re not.

“I would ban social media for a year. Facebook, Instagram, I’d ban it for a year so nobody could use it in all levels of society. I know that sounds weird and I’m sure you can’t do that but that’s what I’d do. The pressures of the job have always been the same but given the circumstances, I thought people would think before they write things, think before they say things, think before they ask questions, think before they comment on social media – think about the situation the world is in.”

The Thistle boss added that he himself had struggled at times during the winter lockdown, burdened by the added responsibility of being a leader at the club in a period of stress and uncertainty.

He continued: “Who plays a hands-on role with me? We were in constant contact with the players but it got to the stage where I was phoning and they really wanted me to have stuff to say to them – about when we’re starting back - and I never had any information.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: Tomas Cerny on spells abroad, finding a home at Firhill and hanging up his gloves

“That became very frustrating. I don’t know about you but I certainly found the second lockdown harder than the first. I thought it was really, really awful.”

There were real concerns that the season would be called prematurely again but once they were eventually given the green light to resume training at the start of March, all 20 League One and League Two clubs united behind a proposal to get the lower leagues up and running once more with a 22-game format.

That prospect looked very distant not so long ago. There were doubts over whether the divisions would even start back up and it was only after weeks of negotiations between the 20 clubs and the SPFL that the details were ground out and the decision to restart was rubber-stamped. It was a rare show of unity in our infamously partisan game – and Britton insists that the victory should not be taken for granted.

“It’s a competitive business and you’re always going to have rivals; that’s just professional sport,” he explained. “But one positive to have come out of it for us is the unity shown by the League One and League Two clubs over the last couple of months. I’ve got to admit that we were going into meetings thinking one thing was going to happen and the complete opposite would happen, and it was all down to the togetherness of the clubs in wanting to get back playing.

“For a lot of clubs the easy option, particularly in League Two, would have been to shut up shop. They had grant funding, they had money out in place that would have tided them over. But there was this drive that we owed it to the supporters to get back playing and that was throughout both leagues.

“The important thing is that lower league clubs have realised that we might be small in stature but together we can be a real force for change. We showed that. The fact that we’re back playing, that it was the clubs that got the game going again. Make no mistake about it – without the clubs working together, I doubt we would be back playing again.”

Low and Britton are also keen to heap praise on the club’s supporters for their fundraising efforts over the last year or so. Refunds have been refused, season tickets bought, raffle tickets purchased and vast sums raised as fans have tried to play their part in easing the financial strain placed on the club.

“The fans have been outstanding from literally day one,” Low says. “From the first day that Covid kicked in we were getting questions from fans asking what they could do to help. The money has made a difference. The fact that it’s still going on now is just phenomenal.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: Thistle fans to star on BBC Scotland after releasing lockdown Jags record

“We’re aware of the impact of Covid on our fans. We know the things that have happened to them and their own financial situation so that just makes us more grateful and aware of how linked we are to the fans. And for the fans that haven’t been able to contribute in the way they would have liked to, they’ve helped in other ways.

“It’s been an amazing and quite a humbling experience. Without wanting to sound trite about it, people absolutely love this club. They’ve shown that and we’ve just been making sure that there’s still a club there to play for when everybody wants to be there and see us.”

Britton added that he, too, was touched by supporters’ generosity. “The reality is I would come in here to letters from people giving donations, people handing back winnings from the 50/50 draw, the GoFundMe [that fans set up to raise cash] … it was humbling,” he said. “It gave us all the inspiration we needed that we had to get back out on that pitch as soon as possible. We know how much the club means to the supporters so it was the least we could do.”

Despite it all, Thistle will return to action against Cove Rangers at Firhill this afternoon, almost a year to the day since the first shutdown began. And while Low admits that the intervening twelve months have been far from plain sailing, she wholeheartedly believes that there have been one or two silver linings to the Jags’ annus horribilis.

Low said: “I think we’ve come out of this with better relationships than what we went in with and trust me, when we got the final word that we’d been given approval for our approach to returning – honestly, I had tears. From where we started to where we ended up – it’s been one of the most inspiring and strange journeys I’ve ever been on.

“You would sit there and hear people talk about the good of the game and the unity of the group. They would have had every right to just talk about their own self-interest but they didn’t. It’s quite a powerful thing that’s happened and we shouldn’t forget that.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Partick Thistle will be here and we’ve given ourselves a good chance to keep progressing because we stuck together over the last year. I’d like to hope that after everything that’s landed on us, we’ll get something good back going forward. That will be the day the fans come back. I’ll settle for hugging people. It’s going to be a new start anyway because it’s been so long since we did these things. The significance will not be lost on any of us.”

“It will be the same for everybody,” Britton concurs. “We’ve went through a bit of a year but like everybody else, we’re just dying to get back to Firhill on a Saturday afternoon; get the fans voicing their opinions, having a sing-song, having a pie and just watching football. There’s nothing better. The last year has shown it’s a waste of time without the fans. It’s just not the same.”