At the start of this week when I sat down to start work on this week’s blog post, I had it in my head that while I was beyond annoyed that Orient, through no fault of our own I hasten to add, hadn’t played a league game for 4 full weeks, in a funny way this might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, with the chance for the players to rest and regroup and get ready for a push for the play-off places over the second part of the season.
No sooner than I finished the initial draft came the news that our planned visit to Oldham had also gone the way of the trip to Colchester and the home games against Newport and Bristol Rovers and been called off. The official party line is apparently that: “taking into account the injuries and positive COVID-19 cases within the squad, the Club [Oldham Athletic] does not have a sufficient number of players available in order to fulfil the fixture and as a result, has informed the EFL and Leyton Orient.”
In response to the announcement, O’s striker Harry Smith took to Twitter to state: “This all stinks. Please someone tell me when on earth “injuries” were ever a factor in a game being cancelled?! All a load of rubbish, 4 games in a row cancelled- yet we were told we MUST play when we was(sic) in the same situation a month ago…Sat-Tues-Thurs before long.” Realistically while it is doubtful that there is actually a specific conspiracy against the Orient (although just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, as a “wise” old friend of mine used to contend!), it is difficult to disagree with our front man’s perspective.
I wrote on this very page last week, admittedly mainly in response to Liverpool successfully appealing to have the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal postponed, that: “…Far be it for me to suggest foul play of any sort, but injuries and players being at AFCON are not exactly unforeseen circumstances.” While I fully understand that Covid, and in particular the very rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the virus, will have an impact on all walks of life, it is the vagueness of the rules around what is considered in deciding that a match can’t go ahead that is the bone of contention.
We only need to look at the number of NHS staff that have been forced to self-isolate over recent weeks and the impact that this has been having on the ability of the individual trusts to be able to maintain their vital level of care, or at public transport whose timetables are being peppered with cancellations due to a shortage of drivers and other support staff, for evidence of the impact that the virus is continuing to have. However, it feels to me that the football powers that be have opened the door to teams who might want to delay a particular fixture, for whatever reason, by failing to specify the number of players within a squad who have to test positive for a planned fixture to be called into question.
As things stand, we don’t know how many of the Oldham squad are ruled out for Covid reasons and how many are injured and to what extent. In the example of Liverpool cited above, only 3 of the 10 players unavailable were missing as a result of Covid, and somehow the Reds were able to “cobble” together a team of youngsters good enough to see off League One Shrewsbury 4-1 in the FA Cup on Sunday. While last night they turned out a pretty much full-strength side (minus those players in Cameroon of course) for the game against Arsenal, including all 3 of the Covid cases. I am not for one minute suggesting foul play by any club, merely demonstrating that as things stand the process is potentially open to exploitation if a team was so inclined.
The impact of all of these postponements will more than likely be felt towards the latter part of the season. As things stand in League Two, if the season had progressed as planned all, or at least the vast majority, of teams would have played 25 or 26 league games up to this point, depending on involvement in the FA Cup third round. A look at the table shows that of the 24 clubs in the division: 5 have played 24 matches, 12 have played 23, 5 (including Orient) have played 22 and Port Vale and Bristol Rovers have played 21. With no spare Saturdays and the Tuesday evenings beginning to fill up there is a real worry about how all these matches can be fitted into the programme without extending the season. Inevitably some teams will face heavier schedules than others which, especially if the situation worsens, begins to call into question the integrity of the competition. Thankfully a quick glance at tomorrow’s fixtures suggests that other than our game all the others look like they are to go ahead as scheduled…at least for now!
In Italy this week, in response to a similar potentially looming fixture pile-up it was announced that, in an attempt to avoid further postponements, a new Covid-19 protocol had been drawn up which requires that for a game to be called off at least 35% of the playing squad will need to have tested positive. Might this be something that we need in our league, with injuries (and absences for other reasons like attendance at AFCON) not being included? Of course, the flip side of this is that some teams might be forced to turn out drastically weakened teams (just like we had to at Prenton Park!), but that is surely more palatable as bad luck rather than the current lack of clarity over the rules.
Frustratingly it is another football-free weekend for us Orient fans, we can only hope that when I sit down to write next week’s post, we actually have a match (or indeed 2!) to look forward to and we can start to think about how the O’s might fare in the second half of the season. Until then:
Up the O’s!