So here we go again, welcome to UK Lockdown 3.0 and yet another post about the impact of the pandemic on the sport that we all love! However, so far at least, it seems that football has escaped suspension, at least for the time being. How long that remains the case is probably reliant on the effective roll out of the vaccine by the powers that be. The evidence proffered by the PPE and Test, Track and Trace debacles since March suggest that we shouldn’t necessarily bank on seeing out this campaign!
Rather worryingly, although not of course unexpectedly, the surging infection rates of the new variant of the virus are starting to impact the game and teams’ ability to fulfil their fixtures. This past Tuesday it was revealed by the Premier League that 40 players and club staff have tested positive for Coronavirus over the past week more than double the previous weekly high. Outbreaks of the virus at individual clubs forced the postponement of the matches between Everton and Manchester City, at incredibly short notice it has to be said, along with Fulham’s games at Spurs and then Burnley.
Meanwhile the EFL has this week been forced to undertake its first round of mandatory testing in response to a total of 40 matches being suspended over the Christmas period as a result of Covid outbreaks. Alarming figures which suggest that fixture congestion later in the season may be the least of our worries. One suspects this may only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of matches having to be postponed to a later date.
Even at this relatively early stage the impact on fixture schedules is increasingly clear, with the league tables already beginning to look somewhat misleading. In the Premier League, presumably the division best able to cope with players having to self-isolate or who are unavailable due to illness given the relative size of squads, there are a number of teams with a couple of games in hand and we haven’t even reached the halfway stage.
In the Championship and Leagues One and Two the situation is just as bad, if not worse, for teams that have largely been forced to play Saturday-Midweek-Saturday given that in the third tier Accrington Stanley have played just 16 of their scheduled 22 matches. Stanley sit in 8th place 11 points off the lead but with 4 games in hand on leaders Lincoln City, thereby rendering the league table at best inaccurate, if not completely meaningless.
Rather surprisingly however it has been reported that the Premier League in a meeting last week chose not to discuss the possibility of implementing a short ‘circuit break’ to pause the season, instead opting to release a statement which read: “With low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs, the League continues to have confidence in its COVID-19 protocols, fully backed by the Government, to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled.” Well that’s that sorted then! When have the Premier League powers-that-be or UK Government ever misjudged things?
If/when things get worse with the virus and infection rates, as I think most of us probably expect them to, the rearranged fixtures may well start to mount up in what is an already condensed schedule. That fear was brought to life in Rugby League’s Super League in the autumn when the league season had to be curtailed and settled on a ‘Winning Percentage’ basis as it became increasingly apparent that several teams were not going to be able to fulfil their fixtures. Would it be overly dramatic or pessimistic to suggest that this might be a very real worry for football in this country? After all, pretty much the same happened last season in League One and Two with final positions, highly controversially, settled on a Points Per Game basis.
Going into this weekend’s FA Cup Third Round, there are already several ties that are going to be impacted by Coronavirus if not annulled completely. Southampton v Shrewsbury was postponed after the League One club reported a significant number of positive cases, although fears that the games involving Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby County would follow suit look just about unfounded, although the outbreaks at each of the three clubs look like forcing them to field teams comprised of players from their Under 23’s or younger squads. It is yet to be decided whether Shrewsbury will be forced to forfeit their match with the FA set to assess these situations on an individual basis, those of us of a Leyton Orient perspective might call into question the integrity of the football authorities if the match is allowed to be rearranged given how we were forced to forfeit our League Cup match against Tottenham.
In response to the growing impact of the virus, yesterday Burnley Manager Sean Dyche called for fast-tracked vaccinations against the virus for professional footballers, with the money saved from testing going to the NHS. Although Dyche did go on to point out that he wasn’t suggesting that professional footballers should jump to the front of the vaccination queue, stating: “Let me make it clear, there are people way in front of footballers [as a priority to be vaccinated]. I’m not remotely suggesting that should be put in front of the welfare of people who are very vulnerable”.
As much as we love the game and want it to be able to continue for the rest of the season and towards a time when we will be able to go back to watching our teams live, as Mrs Football Nerd astutely pointed out given the behaviour of some players in wilfully flouting the Covid regulations, especially over the holiday period, it is difficult not to assume that if that were to happen, once vaccinated some players might see it as a licence to behave however they want when they are away from the regulated environment of their clubs.
No matter how important football is to us hopeless obsessives, it is merely a small part of life as we used to know it, it was never going to be able to escape the impact of the global pandemic which we have faced for ten months now. The key question is not solely how much further it can be impacted but when we might start to get back to some form of normality, if we ever do.