Celtic have insisted their controversial sunshine trip to Dubai was approved by the Scottish government, following calls from Holyrood for the matter to be investigated by the Scottish Football Association.
Neil Lennon and his Hoops squad flew out to the Middle East on Saturday for a warm-weather training camp on the back of a damaging derby defeat to Rangers which left them 19 points adrift in the Premiership title race.
The Scottish government had earlier called for the SFA to look into whether the club had broken special coronavirus exemptions, and Celtic responded this evening to maintain they had done nothing wrong.
In a series of tweets, they posted: “The training camp was arranged a number of months ago & approved by all relevant footballing authorities & @scotgov through the Joint Response Group on 12th November 2020.
In response to the Scottish Government statement, the club has issued the following response:
‘The training camp was arranged a number of months ago & approved by all relevant footballing authorities & @scotgov through the Joint Response Group on 12th November 2020.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) January 4, 2021
“The team travelled prior to any new lockdown being in place, to a location exempt from travel restrictions. The camp, the same one as we have undertaken for a number of years has been fully risk assessed.
“If the club had not received Scottish Government approval then we would not have travelled.”
Their supporters back in Scotland now face further anguish after tougher restrictions on their movements where implemented by first minister Nicola Sturgeon as she launched a desperate bid to halt the rapid spread of Covid-19 cases in the country.
The United Arab Emirates is on the Scottish government’s exempt list, meaning travellers do not have to self-isolate on their return. But even before Monday’s new restrictions were introduced, travel was only permitted for “essential reasons”, leaving Holyrood bosses demanding to know why Celtic’s management and squad opted to jet out to Dubai.
“Following the first minister’s latest update to parliament, we would ask people not to travel internationally, across the UK or beyond their local authority unless absolutely essential,” a Scottish government spokesperson said.
“We would expect the SFA to look into Celtic’s trip further – while there are travel exemptions in place for elite sports which are designed to facilitate international and European competition, if we feel they are being abused, we won’t hesitate to remove this privilege.”
Former St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour has described Celtic’s trip as a “relaxation jolly” – but Lennon insisted that was not the case.
Speaking after Saturday’s Old Firm defeat left their 10-in-a-row dreams hanging by a thread, the Parkhead boss said: “It’s not a break, it’s a training camp. It’s just a change of scenery. We just hope to come back refreshed and ready to go.”
But deputy first minister John Swinney accused the Glasgow giants of not setting “a particularly great example” during an interview on BBC Radio Scotland.
He said: “I don’t think it’s a good idea. When we are asking members of the public to take on very, very significant restrictions on the way in which they live their lives, I think we have all got to demonstrate leadership on this particular question.”
Celtic are due to face Hibernian next Monday evening.
When asked if the defending Scottish champions would be allowed back into the country, Swinney said: “They will be allowed back in but they will have to follow all rules in the process and, you know, frankly I don’t think it’s a very good idea to be doing that at this stage.”
The SFA has been approached for comment by the PA news agency.