Football’s Covid Crisis: Coiffures, Queue-Jumping & Crap

by | Feb 7, 2021

Well, those new English Premier League (EPL) goal-celebration protocols didn’t last long, did they? All those hopes that players would strut their funky stuff at a suitable social distance have been swamped in a sea of tactility. Even from Leicester City’s James Maddison, the only player who seemed to take the protocols to heart.

Yet the latest EPL Covid test results were a fractional improvement on the previous week’s fractional improvement on the previous week’s etc… It’s almost as if Tory MP Julian Knight’s bleatings were the desperate effort at deflection from his government’s Covid incompetence that perceptive observers suspected.

Even better test results news emerged from the English Football League (EFL) this week. But the chaos continues at the lowest level of elite English football, where having players and staff vaccinated would have been the issue of the week, but for the on-going purely financial crisis, which has been exacerbated by the sort of government chicanery and disingenuousness to which we’ve all had to become accustomed for most of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, player thick-as-two-short-plankery still exists, flourishes even, with one EPL striker celebrating his ratio of lockdown haircuts (that we know about) to EPL goals this season being “one,” by taking a picture of his regulation-busting follicular activity and posting it on social media, American-insurrectionist-style.

Last Monday’s announcement of seven positive tests among the 2,957 carried out on EPL players and staff between 25-31 January made fewer headlines, even than last week’s eight out of 2,518. This was lower-key media treatment was refreshingly appropriate. And unless next week’s figures reveal a spike in positive tests in South Manchester and Brighton, Knight’s comments, and those of Labour MP Clive Efford, about Man City’s mass-orgiastic goal-celebration against Brighton on 13th January can be filed under “why Clive can Effoff.”

The EFL have only been testing players and staff since the New Year. There were, ulp, 112 positives among the 3,507 tested between 4-10 January. Assurances from EFL medical advisors that this matched “the current speed” of the “the new variant” spread did not assure. Their belief that EFL protocols were “continuing to mitigate against the spread of infection” wasn’t universally believed. And they appeared in need of their own advice to avoid complacency.

But the figures have shrunk appreciably since, 32 out of 4,598 between 11-18 January, 26 out of 4,794 the next week and 19 out of 5,448 during January’s last days. The EFL also report the number of clubs with “zero positive tests”. In that first week, all of the EFL’s 72 clubs seemed to get bad Covid news, though six clubs weren’t tested at all until the second week, when 53 were “case-free.” That figure rose to 60 in week three and to 65 in the latest results.

Cheltenham Town were one of the possibly unfortunate seven with cases and had to postpone this week’s hosting of Cumbrian duo Barrow and Carlisle United, the former possibly grateful for the chance to make the midweek trip down the left side of England in warmer days. However, I’m sure Julian Knight would blame that on the goal celebrations of the Robins’ recent FA Cup opponents Manchester City.

Knight could have had a genuine field day with Newcastle United’s Joelinton, who got his hair done last Friday in the North Shields garage of “celebrity stylist” Tom Baxter. The 24-year-old “striker” was fined £200 by Northumbria Police. And it would be depressing, especially in these financially straitened times, to calculate how few minutes it would take Joelinton to ‘earn’ that back. But the story had intrigues.

Baxter has regulation-busting barbering “form,” as they say…if they are sliding a “better form than Joelinton” gag into the narrative. This week’s prohibition notice, from North Tyneside Council, was his second warning for clandestine coiffuring, after Newcastle City council had a word about “operating his barbershop,” the imaginatively-entitled “Tom Baxter Hair,” during November’s national ‘Lockdown 2 – Electric Boogaloo’ (unofficial title).

And on cutting footballers’ hair, Baxter, whose shop donated £2,500 to the NHS when they re-opened in July after the first lockdown, readily admitted that “I have done them all,” adding that “they just did not put it on social media” and that Joelinton was an “idiot” for doing so. One wonders if Newcastle’s slightly scarily aggressive promise to take “appropriate action internally” will reveal who else Baxter has “done,” though we can surely rule Andy Carroll out, because if Baxter “did” THAT pony-tailed mess, he should be fined £200 too.

Baxter hasn’t (yet) publicly defined “all.” But he knew he “shouldn’t have done” these cuts and said he did so anyway to “make ends meet” (celebrity styling doesn’t pay that well, it seems). So I wouldn’t blame him for being susceptible to, ahem, journalistic persuasion of a financial nature to reveal “all” at some stage. Especially as pictures of his salon do not disprove his claim to have spent twenty grand making it Covid-regulation-compliant.

Baxter also said that he thought Joelinton’s cut was legit because it was for a “photo-shoot.” Which might make cynics wonder what such a photo-shoot was for, three days before a transfer window shut. Joelinton remains a Newcastle player, though. An unused sub at Everton the day after his hop to the barbershop. And whatever Baxter made him look like, Callum Wilson’s match-winning display at Goodison Park made him look miles from the first team. Maybe the most appropriate action internally against Joelinton would be to pick him. To punish himself and any other players “done” by Baxter.

Much of this story invites ridicule. But Newcastle’s Covid problems in late November should have made their players extra-vigilant, after their training ground was shut for a week by a virus outbreak and players suffered throughout December. Instead, Joelinton breached regulations and stuck his breach on Instagram, for all the world, and Northumbria Police, to see. Christ. On. A. Bike.

Ridiculousness and seriousness also combined in Derbyshire, where three players and three staff from National League club Chesterfield reportedly received vaccines at a local medical centre in recent weeks. The Daily Mail newspaper’s Tom Kelly broke the story on Wednesday, reporting the findings of the paper’s “investigation,” and suggesting, in the temperate manner for which the Mail is so famous, that there was vaccine queue-jumping afoot.

The headline said the club were “SLAMMED” (in upper case, apparently) for “immoral queue-jumping,” with “some as young as 21 receiving the jab!” (their “!”). A sub-headline said their physio was “horrified” at “the plot.” An un-named “source associated with the club,” whatever that means, claimed “medical staff…were not told about the plan.” Website picture captions accused the club of “handing out” and “wheeling-out” vaccines. And a former club secretary said it was “deplorable” to “take vaccines away from the prioritised groups and frontline NHS staff.”

The actual fact, that the “players and staff received leftover Pfizer vaccines…late in the day…after scheduled patients did not turn up,” was submerged, dwarfed by two surrounding pictures. And, surprise, this sensationalism quickly translated into threats against a medical centre staff member, who told the BBC: “I’ve had almost 40 calls this morning. I got a call saying they knew where I and my family live and to get ready. It’s become very upsetting. I’ve been on to the police.”

And she noted, pertinently: “People are phoning the surgery to complain about what’s happened because it’s been misinterpreted by a reporter who rang me yesterday and was really aggressive. They are very precious vaccines and we are trying desperately not to waste them. They had to get there within 15 minutes or it would have gone down the drain.”

The club, aware of the looming public relations disaster, stressed that most of the six “were classed as vulnerable people” who “were called at very short notice to receive the vaccine…in line with the NHS directive that doctors and staff…can make full use of any unused vaccines, rather than have any go to waste…which would have been the case had they not received them.”

They “were only contacted after the surgery had exhausted all other viable options.” They “were keen that these vaccines were not wasted,” bless ‘em. And the club made sure to remind on-lookers that “we continue to support the NHS’s brilliant work and have provided Covid-19 testing facilities at our stadium throughout the pandemic, so vital care can be administered.” Bless them, too.

The NHS Derby and Derbyshire Clinical Commissioning Group announced an investigation but seem to have already decided that queues had been jumped, their statement stressing straight off that it was “unacceptable” to do so “ahead of people most at risk.” And they added: “The NHS guidance is clear that local vaccination services must…ensure all appointments are filled and they have a back-up list of high-risk people (those aged 70 and over or who are clinically extremely vulnerable) who can receive the vaccine at short notice.”

There are genuine questions about the co-ordination between club and medical centre. And if three players and three staff were involved, and “most” were “vulnerable,” then at least one player was. Which needs detail. But the Mail’s sensationalism simply caused trouble, where straight factual reporting would have put the relevant protagonists under relevant scrutiny.

As much as such a ludicrous situation can be, the more general, fundamental crisis at National League level is, expertly explained here. But one key point needs adding. Because although the deficiencies in the league’s leadership are undoubted, the government should not be allowed to escape their responsibility for the chaos.

Clubs were only able to begin this season, in October, because they got £10m in National Lottery-funded grants, designed to cover three months’ of the loss of earnings. Losses imposed by the entirely sensible government policy of denying fans entry to matches. And, after that money ran out, as the Non-League Paper (out every Sunday, a mere £1.50), reported “the situation” was to be “reviewed, with the government committed to continuing its support beyond then if needed.”

It is a matter of fact that this support is “needed.” Clubs are now worse off, with fans’ re-entry a more distant prospect than it was in October. So any honest review could only recommend continuing the grants. Yet only loans are now on offer. So, however generous or otherwise the loan repayment terms are, and whatever was or wasn’t put in writing, worse-off clubs are being asked to accept a worse offer, which may force some to trade while insolvent in order to fulfil their fixtures.

The government have not explained how they expect clubs to survive while their own policies cut clubs off from the most significant part of their income. It is almost as if they want to look, rather than be, helpful. Except…well…no…that’s it. An attitude which has killed more than just football clubs.