The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Petrie overcomes health scare and is back at the helm
THE image of Rod Petrie as farmhand does not come easy to the mind’s eye. Rarely seen without a tie and blazer, there has always been a buttoned-up quality to the SFA president’s carefully guarded persona. Famously circumspect in interviews, we know little of Petrie the person, certainly not enough to imagine him ploughing a furrow in any occupation outside the arena of boardrooms and director’s lounges.
Yet as he reflected on his very personal troubles of the past 18 months, the former Hibs chairman offered a rare glimpse into his past as he evoked a bucolic upbringing.
As he chaired a series of lockdown meetings aimed at preserving the Scottish game through the worst of the pandemic, Petrie was engaged in a struggle to maintain his own health.
In June of last year he had to take a step back, temporarily relinquishing his duties as the Scottish FA president.
As is his prerogative, he’s unwilling to discuss the specifics, but even in a time of home working and Zoom meetings, the situation was serious enough to require a complete hand-over to his vice-president Mike Mulraney.
Chairman of Alloa Athletic, Mulraney had to stand in for the president at the SFA’s 2020 annual general meeting but a leaner Petrie was back at the helm for this year’s edition despite his ongoing health battle.
‘Everyone tells me I’m looking good so that’s great news,’ says the 65-year-old. ‘It’s been a challenging 12 months job-wise and personally.
‘I don’t want to go into the details of it, but I’m feeling good. I’ve come through quite a lot over the period and I had to take a month out.
‘Mike was fantastic for me at that point and I’m now back working every day in this new, virtual environment with Zoom meetings. I think my colleagues would say I’ve done my fair share.
‘I’ve got a pretty robust constitution having been brought up in a working environment on a farm. I’ve a degree of resilience about me.
‘If I’m not able to do the job, I’ll be the first guy to stand aside and let people get on with it but I’ve had tremendous support from Mike, the board, staff and family and friends.
‘I’m delighted to be here and I’m looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers in September, focused on what needs to be done during my next two years in office.’
Past SFA presidents have tended to view their position as ceremonial but, even before coronavirus entered the daily lexicon, Petrie had vowed to use his term to drive the association’s involvement in the joint UK and Ireland 2030 World Cup bid and also set the ball rolling towards the redevelopment of Hampden.
Covid shifted everyone’s priorities. As football shut down, the governing body moved into emergency mode, with Petrie heading up the Joint Response Group formed in collaboration with the SPFL.
The overriding goal was to stop clubs going to the wall. Petrie explains: ‘When it hit 16 months ago, one of the things we wanted to ensure was that every club in Scotland made it through. There was great uncertainty about what the financial impact would be, so it was good to be able to acknowledge at the AGM that every club had made it through.
‘That’s been through financial prudence at the SFA. We’ve used some of the resource we had, been able to get additional resources, in terms of financial support from FIFA and other steps we took.
‘The SPFL and ourselves advanced money earlier to clubs. And I thank the Scottish Government for providing £30million of financial support. Not just loans to top clubs but grants all the way down the financial pyramid.
‘We had to suspend the game here on March 13. That’s not really what you want to do as SFA president in your first year in office — to shut down the whole of Scottish football.
‘There were real concerns expressed at a number of levels that clubs might not make it through. My priority was to ensure that didn’t happen. I had to take some difficult decisions but it’s a source of considerable satisfaction that the clubs have made it through and are now looking forward to the new season in front of supporters.’
Amid all the gloom, the angst and the cabin fever, there was a moment of shared triumph as Scotland qualified for a major tournament for the first time in 23 years.
Participation at Euro 2020 always seemed like a minimum requirement from the moment Glasgow was chosen as one of UEFA’s original 12 host cities, more so as the Nations League presented a pathway to a play-off final against Serbia.
When it mattered most, Steve Clarke’s team then delivered a performance in Belgrade to secure a couple of Hampden clashes against the Czech Republic and Croatia at Hampden, with a memorable Friday night against England at Wembley sandwiched in between.
‘To be president when the men’s team qualified for a major tournament is what all my predecessors would have wished for. It was fantastic,’ adds Petrie.
‘Steve Clarke came in as head coach and has done a remarkable job. We had high expectations given what he had achieved and the calibre of the guy.
‘He exceeded those expectations. He has given the nation pride in its national team again in the way they have gone about it.
‘This gave us a taste for the best and biggest tournaments in the world. I think we’d forgotten how exciting it was.’