Football & Covid-19: Millers Mess & No International Rescue

by | Mar 21, 2021

There was still no hiding it. Like last week, the English Football League (EFL) accompanied the number of positive Covid tests during the latest testing period with news that “71 EFL clubs returned zero positive tests over this period.” This enabled the more arithmetically astute among football’s intelligentsia to calculate that one club returned all the positives and the better read of that group to ascertain that Championship strugglers Rotherham United were said club.

The figures were thus alarming, as the EFL confirmed that “a total of 5533 players and club staff” were tested from 8-14 March “with 25 positive cases returned.” Rotherham had already postponed three EFL games due to this outbreak, their second this season. And these figures suggested their hopes of avoiding three-game weeks for most of their relegation battle would be dashed.

They were able to field a team to lose 4-1 at home to high-flying Watford on Tuesday, which, given the two club’s league positions, was not a rogue result. And on Thursday, Millers manager Paul Warne insisted that “there haven’t been more than 20 individual cases involving players and first-team staff. I’m the only one still self-isolating. Everyone else is through it.”

Warne missed the Watford defeat and Saturday’s fine win at Bristol City. And while Rotherham’s Roundwood training ground re-opened on 12th March, the press elsewhere reported that the EFL had “confirmed 25 cases of Covid-19.” The Yorkshire Post said on Thursday that 25 “may have referred to positive tests as opposed to the number of individuals involved.” But although the EFL statement referred to “positive tests” in their statement, they specified 25 “cases.”

Either way, Millers assistant manager Richie Barker, who took charge of the team against Watford, claimed staging the game was “not really the right decision” for “player welfare.” It was, he understated impressively, “not an ideal scenario to come back after one day’s training” to play in-form Watford with “a good few players who have not been in good shape over the last week.” But the EFL has stuck to the season’s planned end date of 8th May, ahead of the June/July Euros. So, Barker added: “We are running out of time to fit games in and we needed to get this one over and done with.” Not an ideal scenario, indeed.

However, this viral spike might be another case of “in football as in life.” On 19th February, eight days before the first of the latest batch of Millers’ postponements, the town’s infection rate was twice the national average. And the local Star newspaper said Rotherham Council was among “five local authorities to record a weekly rise in new cases,” with infections “nearly double” those in neighbouring Sheffield.” The Star’s Robert Cumber also indirectly quoted Rotherham’s “new director of public health,” Ben Anderson suggesting, without further explanation, that “the more transmissible Kent variant took longer to arrive in Rotherham than in other parts of the country.”

The latest spike/rise (depending on the newspaper) in Glasgow Covid cases needed no further explanation to some, given Rangers fans’ title celebrations in the city on 6th and 7th March. The Herald newspaper noted, “the average period” between exposure and symptoms is “five to six days.” But Scottish Health Secretary Jeanette Freeman said it was “too early” to be sure of the rise’s origins. And Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith said similar.

However, Smith confirmed a “small number” of positives among celebrants. NHS Grampian “head of health intelligence” Jillian Evans advised celebrants and subsequent contacts to “get tested.” And the Daily Record “newspaper” also “learned of positive tests among those policing the celebrations, with “more than 30 officers” having to self-isolate.” But, as they say, it’s too early to tell if the rule-flouting celebrations caused these cases among police and policed.

Meanwhile, the latest English Premier League (EPL) test results showed two new positive cases for the sixth consecutive week, from 2,664 tests, about 150 lower than the average number of tests over the previous five weeks. Fans with far too much time on their hands could probably identify the two were from the vagueness of the injuries attributed to missing players. But the EPL continue, rightly, to offer no clue.

Like Celtic, the EPL are unlikely to reach ten-in-a-row, according to the dark forebodings about the forthcoming international break. After last autumn’s internationals, numerous players returned to clubs having tested positive. Some positives were false and damaging to the nations in some key cases, including (he notes bitterly), Ireland striker Aaron Connolly (which makes Connolly’s recent regulation breach, for the intriguing offence of “inviting a woman into a house in which he had been staying,” so exasperating).

South America’s World Cup qualifiers have been postponed due, the continent’s football governing body CONMEBOL announced on 6th March, “to the impossibility of having all the South American players in a timely manner.” Their statement didn’t expand on this. And Fifa formally reported that the decision “(took) into consideration the existing volatility” over said regulations. But Sky Sports reported that CONMEBOL had “acknowledged (that) tightening lockdown and quarantine regulations mean many of the European-based players will be unable to travel.”

Fifa announced last October that, “for the remainder of 2020,” the rules “relating to the release of players” for internationals were to be relaxed if “there is a mandatory period of quarantine or self-isolation for at least five days upon arrival in the location of the club which has an obligation to release the player” or “the location where an (international) is scheduled” or “there is a travel restriction to or from either location.” And on 5th February, Fifa extended this relaxation “until the end of April.”

One major impact of this came on Wednesday, when the French Ligue de Football Professionel undertook a whistle-stop consultation, “on the initiative” of the top two divisions’ 40 club presidents, who decided to “unanimously apply the Fifa circular of 5th February” and refuse to “make players available” for March internationals outside the “France international set-up” and “the (EU/European Economic Area).” This will particularly affect next week’s African Cup of Nations 2022 qualifiers, as there are about 150 Ligue 1 and 2 players from the continent.

EPL bosses supposedly had similar “worries.” Last month, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said the EPL “should be very concerned” about the internationals. “The only way to be protected from this virus is to stay at home and social distance,” he insisted. “No contact, don’t travel, don’t move. Now players are going to their national teams and it is difficult afterwards to control it. So, unfortunately, something is going to rise. I would love to say it is not going to happen but from experience, it happened in two or three waves already.”

However, truer colours were soon revealed. On March 6th, Guardiola reasoned that “It makes no sense for them to go” and quarantine afterwards “for ten days…when we spend a lot of hours and money for the important time of the season” (my emphasis). Three days earlier, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp said: “We cannot let the boys go, and sort the situation out by placing (them) in a ten-day quarantine in a hotel. The players are paid by the clubs, so we have to be the first priority” (my emphasis again).

It was clear, then, that Pep and Klopp had tried to hide their actual priority behind the regulations. Because neither spoke of players being “protected from this virus” by staying “at home” with Champions League ties up-coming. The speed of the French presidents’ decision suggested similar thinking, even if its formal announcement naturally didn’t let this slip. That France’s 28th March trip to Kazakhstan is still currently on suggests, let’s say, ‘other’ thinking.

In current circumstances, the subject of elbowing grannies aside (metaphorically, of course) to get players vaccinated early inevitably re-emerged, ten weeks after Burnley boss Sean Dyche emerged it. This week, England boss Gareth Southgate suggested it, as he announced his latest multi-racial squad.

He “wasn’t in any way suggesting” that players “should be ahead of key workers and teachers.” But “our vaccination programme has been incredible…nearly all the vulnerable people have had the first vaccine.” Soooo… “we are getting close to the point where (early vaccination) could be acceptable.” And he added that “football” had “a responsibility” to players and “football could afford to save the NHS money by buying vaccines and administering them.”

Southgate didn’t specify to whom this would “be acceptable” or which part of “football” would buy and administer the vaccines, while admitting that his ideas might be undermined by “the bump we have hit on supply.” But he said players were “having to take some risk going back to families and a lot of them have caught the virus because they have been working.” Working for clubs, of course, as “players are paid by the clubs” (see above). So…erm…well, we’ll see.

Still, whoever “they” were, Southgate let his guard slip when he suggested that taking “the weight off the NHS…would stop a lot of the restrictions and money we are wasting,” before adding, fractionally late: “Not wasting because we are spending it for the right reasons. But we are spending a lot of money on testing and extra coaches for travel.” It would be easy to note that “we” spend a lot of MILLIONS on occasionally quite mediocre players. So I have.

Of course, the solution to all this would be to stop international travel for football matches until the health of everyone involved was as guaranteed as it would be in normal times. But…hey…money. So, on and on…and on we go.