Football & Covid-19: The Not-So-Beautiful Blame Game

by | Jan 10, 2021

It could not have been more matter-of-fact let more blatant. At 6.31, during BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Wednesday morning, sports correspondent Gary Richardson declared: “The Premier League say 40 players and club staff have tested positive for coronavirus over the past week. That’s more than double the previous weekly high. The results come after there were a number of coronavirus breaches by players over Christmas.”

The two constituent parts of Richardson’s report were factually accurate. But their conflation was not. The number of positive tests did rise from 18 in Christmas week to 40 last week. But this was not due to players’ “breaches over Christmas,” the impression most Today listeners would have taken from the report. Possibly by design. The rise had two specific causes. Firstly, because the EPL tested 2,295 players last week, compared to 1,479 the week before, having newly-instigated twice-weekly testing. But, secondly, because their Covid protocols were having minimal discernible impact.

The rise was not as dramatic as the “18-to-40” figure suggests. As the BBC website correctly reported, the percentage of positive tests rose from 1.22 to 1.74, not the “positive tests double” of the BBC website headline. However, the 42.6% week-on-week rise in EPL positive tests mirrored the 42.6% rise in positive tests across England’s general population. The EPL figures were for the fortnight to 3rd January. The population figures were for the fortnight to 6th January. So, the EPL’s Covid protocols were buying them just three days.

Strengthening them was the least the league could do. So that is all they have done. Stricter protocols include subs wearing facemasks, more robustly-policed social distancing and reduced staff numbers at training grounds (though clubs will surely retain stable-door-shutters as horses disappear over horizons). Clubs will need “more robust policies” on reporting breaches. And the EPL has threatened “disciplinary action” if breaches are not “appropriately investigated and sanctioned” (which could lead to potential duplications of effort).

These seem little more than a refresher course in the basics, a tightening of routines loosened since the summer. Compare some of the awkward socially-distanced goal celebrations when the German Bundesliga restarted in May with the post-match mass of Mancunians at last week’s two Old Trafford encounters; United swamping Eric Bailly after his late block saved United two points and City celebrating en-masse after beating United in the League Cup semi-final.

Focusing on individual behaviour seems part of a campaign to blame stupid players for the worsening situation, despite their actions not impacting the figures yet. Curiously, the link was more actively made by the Beeb than the EPL’s formal announcement. And I doubt that Richardson was doing anything more than reading from a script. But BBC Radio, I suspect, has more listeners in England than premierleague.com has visitors. And someone at premierleague.com, I suspect, knows that.

Not that stupid players weren’t stupid. In the EPL as in English life, government AND governed have played their creative part in England’s almost world-beating crisis. And club representatives have ‘expressed their disappointment’ (a well-worn euphemism for ‘lost their shit’) at their players’ behaviour, Manchester City literally so, after defender Benjamin Mendy’s New Year’s Eve aberration. A special kind of stupid, that, as the number of cases in City’s ‘camp’ caused the postponement of their trip to Everton, THREE DAYS earlier.

Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho also directed the “D” word at Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso, after pictures emerged on social media (buzzwords in this tale) of a Christmas gathering of family and friends, among whom was West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini, possibly celebrating what could thus be a short-lived return to first-team contention.

Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson could not hide his exasperation, during his post-match interview for ‘Match of the Day’ (MOTD) last Saturday, at his captain Luka Milivojevic’s New Year’s Eve partying, with fellow Serb and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. He also used the “D” word. But his face was more in-tune with his almost growled insistence that Milivojevic’s apology was “not enough.” Mitrovic was an even more special kind of stupid than Mendy, as the number of cases in Fulham’s ‘camp’ caused the postponement of their trip to Tottenham, ONE DAY earlier. Even easily-diverted goldfish might think that a shocking memory lapse.

Clubs have offered variants of Mourinho’s claim that “we are not in control of (players) 24 hours-per-day,” when regulation breaches have emerged. Indeed, you cannot expect EPL clubs to exercise such control, except in extreme circumstances. Such as, to pick an example purely at random, a PANDEMIC OF A VIRUS TRANSMITTED BY HUMAN CONTACT. But even on issues well within their remits and capabilities, EPL clubs have seemed lax. Hodgson still selected his captain, AS captain, reasoning that as Milivojevic tested negative, “we “weren’t concerned” about whether they had breached protocols.

The common refrain, also offered by Hodgson, is that clubs will “deal” with matters “internally.” Mourinho offered a characteristically offbeat variant. After a ‘you-had-to-be-there-I-guess’ reference to a “Portuguese piglet,” he said: “We know what we are internally, we don’t need to open the door to you and let you know what is going on internally and how deeply we approach that negative surprise.” He also told MOTD that “I think I have told you enough and I’ve told you everything,” to which presenter Gary Lineker replied, deadpan-as-you-like: “Not everything.”

Yet despite everything, the EPL still cite “the low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs.” This may be EPL.com website managers forgetting to adjust a template. But, by accident or design, its continued inclusion as EPL reasoning is ageing badly. On Thursday, Aston Villa’s training ground was closed after a “large number” of positive tests on Monday combined with “more positive results” from the second round of testing to form a “significant outbreak.”

Villa’s training ground closure follows those at Newcastle, Sheffield United and Manchester City. So, the “majority” of clubs is getting less “overwhelming” and the “low” numbers are getting less low. The EPL’s attitude resembles Donald Trump’s to US Covid cases in February: “(We) have 15 people,” he declared, insisting that his administration had Covid “under control.” The analogy isn’t exact. Trump added that “the 15 within a couple of days is going to be close to zero.” And the EPL isn’t THAT wrong-headed. But there remains a Trumpian arrogance about them on this issue.

Mercifully, on Thursday, Burnley boss Sean Dyche had the solution. No. really. Fast-track vaccinate the players. Dyche is worldly-wise enough to know that EPL players are, and are considered, privileged enough as it is. So his comments beneath the headline were nuanced and intelligent, brighter than a Burnley team photo.

He cited “that dangerous moment of how many games need to be called off before its time to lock down again” and insisted, via tongue-twister, that he was “trying to think of a possible thought process to find a way through.” He stressed that he wasn’t “remotely trying to step in front of the key workers.” He said fast-track vaccinations should be “throughout football,” though he didn’t define “throughout.” And he wanted EPL testing costs “channelled back into the NHS.” Bloody liberal.

However, Thursday provided other emotions. Fulham midfielder Kevin MacDonald, echoing Dyche’s concerns, Instagram-ed: “How many more outbreaks and training ground closures before football needs to stop!!!” And he suggested that players were being “literally treated like guinea pigs!!!” His rage lacked full coherence. He clearly believes football “needs to stop” before any more outbreaks. And I’ve not heard of guinea pigs being blamed for the experiments carried out on them. But his incoherence was understandable. Unlike the EPL’s on-going incoherence and, it seems, indifference.

Then, on Friday, Newcastle supremo Steve Bruce completed an unlikely sagacity hat-trick, after Dyche’s comments and “Big” Sam Allardyce’s stint as last week’s voice of reason. “Financially, its right to play on,” Bruce began, nutshelling the EPL’s strategy. “But, for me, morally, it’s probably wrong,” he concluded, perhaps going one step further than criticising the league on health grounds. Covid sure has messed with managers’ minds in the EPL bubble. What next? Frank Lampard voting Labour?

Covid has also made draconians of us woolly liberals (though that may not survive the realisation that the police can now apply a modern version of the 1970s ‘Sus’ laws to white people too). But the EPL’s laissez-faire-ism is now impossible to reconcile with reality. Their protocol strengthening smells like an effort to be seen to be treating “the health of players and staff” as “the priority” they claim it is. And it looks like a finger-in-the-dyke on a day when the number of registered UK Covid deaths was a record high 1,325.

This article will likely have been overtaken by events before you get here. The story is fluid and as fast-moving as Covid case numbers. Which, of course, is the point. Even more so than when I ranted about all this last week. And almost certainly even more so when I rant about all this again next week.