The news that Manchester City had gained permission from the Premier League to cancel their trip to Goodison Park to face Everton on Monday 28th December just four hours before kick off seems to have divided opinion on whether the continuation of football at the current time is being driven above the health and safety of those involved in the game. Forty eight hours later, Fulham suffered the same fate with their game at Tottenham Hotspur being cancelled due to an outbreak in the Craven Cottage camp.
Whilst the game was only one of a small number so far to have postponed due to COVID-19 cases, it was the first to be cancelled at such short notice. A look further down the Christmas Bank Holiday fixture programme and you will find games off at all levels, with just three of the ten scheduled games in the National League South taking place (and four already cancelled on Saturday). Tuesday night’s fixtures in League One were also badly impacted with seven of the twelve games postponed in advance.
I’ve rarely agreed with Sam Allardyce – I met him on a couple of occasions and was once asked to interview him when West Ham played FCK in Copenhagen because no other member of the UK media would. But he hit the nail on the head after West Brom’s defeat to Leeds United on Tuesday night.
“Everyone’s safety is more important than anything else. When I listen to the news that the variant virus transmits quicker than the original virus, we can only do the right thing, which is have a circuit break.”
The uncomfortable truth for the authorities, and not just those involved in football, is that the mutated virus is spreading quickly in spite of the precautions put in place when it first started to take hold. What appears to be becoming quickly apparent is that it doesn’t matter if players are tested daily, squad bubbles are in place and all the surfaces they touch are regularly cleaned, the virus is spreading.
This is a view shared by Allardyce, “As much as we’re getting tested – we had one positive this week – it seems to be creeping round. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many times we get tested, how we wear our masks, how we sanitise our hands, we’re still catching a lot infections round the country.”
Clubs at the ‘Elite’ level are tested regularly, with the Premier League sides undertaking tests at least twice a week. In the last round of tests carried out, 18 positive cases were identified. However, further down the leagues the story is different. Bi-weekly testing of EFL clubs costs up to £10,000 per week, which they have to fund themselves. For those clubs in Tier 4 they can’t offset that with any revenue through the gate.
Dr Wes Tensel is a GP in Greater Manchester but also acts as Rochdale FC’s club doctor. He is not the first medical professional to be questioning whether football should pause for a while in light of the rapidly increasing infection rates. The speed at which infections can spread throughout a club has been underlined by Rochdale’s situation with numerous positive cases leading to the games against Blackpool, Crewe Alexandra and MK Dons being cancelled.
Dr Tensel fears that the pressure put on players to play neglects the concerns and fears they have about the virus. Many have families with young children, elderly relates and those that are shielding. Every time they play they put those close to them at risk.
The introduction of Tier 4 restrictions for major parts of the country has led to virtually every league at Steps 3 downwards (‘non-elite’) being suspended with little sign of a return in the near future. Unlike in Tier 3, players aren’t allowed to train under Tier 4 restrictions which means even if clubs could return to games in the near future, there would need to be a significant period of fitness preparation to get them match ready. But for clubs at the Elite level, they are still travelling between the tiers and whilst they operate within their own bubbles, the case of the infections in the Manchester City case prove that the system isn’t infallible.
With so many NHS Trusts now declaring emergency situations with regard to resources and patient capacity, we should be all trying to reduce the burden on the system. Whilst we can argue to the cows come home about under funding and start to kick around that political football, it doesn’t help the situation today. A temporary suspension of football across the country would at least reduce some of the cases caused by playing the game, no matter how small that number may be.
We all want to be watching football again, but are we now at a tipping point in terms of the spread of the virus that we need to pause the game? The FA’s slogan is For All – perhaps now is the time that the words are put into action.