Football’s Covid Crisis: The Nonsense Never Ends

by | Jan 26, 2021

It is often good to be wrong. And if the latest English Premier League (EPL) Covid test results prove part of a trend, my calls for elite football to pause because of Covid will be partly outdated.

Nonetheless, below the EPL, different tales are still being told. The National Leagues, North and South, were suspended for a fortnight after pressure from clubs. And the Northern Premier, Southern Premier and Isthmian Leagues’ tale is “Null-and-void. Please”

The latest EPL results suggest that the moral panic over EPL players partying during the holiday period was, shock, misguided bollox. There were 24 new positive cases over the last fortnight, from 5,633 tests, compared to 36 from 2,593 tests three weeks ago. This is the lowest percentage of positives since before Christmas. And scientists say that it takes infections 2-3 weeks to emerge in the figures. These figures therefore seem likely to link to Christmas and New Year, rubbishing the attempts to link partying players to rising case numbers. The next blame game, though, was a doozy. I referred to it briefly in my last article. Be warned, I’ll not be so brief here.

To recap. The problem? How to explain rising case numbers without citing the insanity of continuing contact sport while a virus transmitted by…contact spreads globally. The solution? Blame players’ goal celebrations. The idea that goal celebrations directly caused infections was too stupid, even for this blame game. So, the complaint, approximately 3% more credible, concerned the “optics.” Because “some of the scenes we have seen have been brainless and give out an awful message.”

Julian Knight, Conservative MP for Solihull, chairs the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) parliamentary select committee. He wrote those words in the Times newspaper on 14th January. And he added: “It’s ridiculous to say it’s just instinct.” (a claim attributed to Man City manager Pep Guardiola but made more directly by Brighton boss Graham Potter, after the two sides’ EPL meeting on 13th January) Of course players can stop doing it.”

Knight dislikes the EPL, in ten-foot high letters. Brainlessly too, after a June report that the pandemic would cost EPL clubs £1bn over the 2019/20 season. “To put into context,” he tweeted, “charities, which help millions of people, face a shortfall of £4bn.” To which BBC/BT football presenter Gary Lineker tweeted: “To put into context, there are around 160,000 charities in the UK and 20 Premier League clubs, which also help millions of people.”

Last week, Knight noted: “We’ve seen plenty of occasions where someone does a special routine for a goal celebration similar to the dance you sometimes see in American Football.” (just the one?). Like a schoolmaster to errant kids, he said: “Let’s not have this jumping on top of each other in the face of everything we are trying to deal with.”

Then, unable to recommend tougher sentencing for football’s Covid criminals (yet), he added: “I’ve read that it’s not a bookable offence but surely it can be covered by unsportsmanlike conduct.” And he wondered why referees couldn’t “issue yellow cards” like “when a player takes off a shirt in goal celebration,” the offence there being inciting crowds, which… well… y’know. “We are all human,” he concluded, unconvincingly, “but we are trying desperately to get the message out there about keeping your distance, so it is completely the wrong optics to see players piling on after a goal.”

Knight was rightly ‘piled onto’ for his ridiculousness, which had the opposite to the required effect, uniting sports journalism across the UK media’s political spectrum in condemning the government, which many might not otherwise have done.

The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel leaves proper perspective to others. In his 15th January article, “Kill the joy explosion and we may as well stop playing,” he wrote: “The government knows the game faces financial catastrophe if the season is cancelled, so dangles this threat. They didn’t have the brains to devise an effective method of distribution” for vaccines “but somehow they’ve got time for this.” Because MPs can only have the same thought at a time.

The Guardian’s Barry Glendinning, thesaurus well-thumbed, called goal-celebrations optics “comparatively benign” alongside “intensive care units… full of people at death’s door because our imbecilic prime minister and his coterie of fawning lickspittles” cannot make “timely decisions.”

As anxious to divert blame, the EPL reactively issued “enhanced” Covid protocols on “participant behaviour,” adding “goal celebrations” to a list covering standard matchday and in-match routine. CEO Richard Masters told member clubs they were “fortunate” that they could “continue,” that “concerning scenes” of celebration had brought what he called “justified additional scrutiny” to a league which “must take the lead in setting the right example,” and that “handshakes, high-fives and hugs must be avoided.”

Yet choreographed celebrations in English football are decades-old and have long-been worked on in training. So, some players easily adapted. Leicester City’s James Maddison is a terrific interviewee and a post-career media career is his to lose. He led on celebrating’s ‘new normal’ after scoring two weekends ago. Yet even he has reverted to type since. When West Brom boss “Big” Sam Allardyce told his players “no hugging, no kissing,” after their 3-2 win at Wolves, you sensed a piss-take. Only Liverpool have consistently obeyed the new EPL rules… by only scoring in the FA Cup.

It’s all nonsense, though, resembling the product of an evening ON the optics. If EPL players spread Covid, it will surely happen long before any post-goal unnecessariness. And if Knight really is concerned about non-whisky “optics,” what about the optics of a rugby scrum?

On January 15th, the boards of the Northern Premier, Southern Premier and Isthmian Leagues (the “Trident Leagues”) recommended that their seasons “be terminated and made null and void at the earliest opportunity.” And while finance has dictated this stance as much as anything else, anywhere else, it is surely correct.

I have a vested interest here. As my regular readers know (hi, you two), I support Isthmian League Kingstonian (Ks), and operate a turnstile, THE turnstile on quieter days. In that capacity, I did not feel safe when 2020/21 began in September. And though Ks never neared their permitted Covid-capacity, matchdays were a viral danger. Like UK society, grounds at our level were not designed for pandemic control. Playing, as a pandemic raged, was/is simply not on.

After “overwhelming feedback” from their clubs, the boards said: “resuming competitive football is not financially viable unless paying fans are admitted and clubs are able to derive secondary income from clubhouses or alternate sources.” For certain clubs, it is handy that their football can drive you to drink. This is “not a done deal,” as the final decision “rests with the FA Council.” But even at this level, broadcast money is dictating terms.

Clubs would have to play “three times a week (and sometimes four)” to finish seasons by 31st May, even if it didn’t snow again. Taking any longer would cause “additional problems” with player contracts, players and volunteers’ holidays and “the start of the 2021/22 season, in which the FA Cup qualifying round dates are pre-set to achieve the broadcasters’ target first round date.” The BBC’s Manish Bhasin has to know when he’ll be on telly again.

In a sentence on which Scottish football fans might have a view, the boards said that “we would probably have to complete 75% of fixtures…to justify promotion and relegation.” All alternatives presented alternative problems. There was “no escaping the fact” that “these alternatives… will require changes to existing Rules (which) must pass through several FA Committees. And, they said with the bitterness of experience dealing with FA blazers, “this takes time.”

Perhaps un-necessarily, they felt the need to self-justify. “Some may claim second sight,” they claimed, doubting that “anyone could have foreseen the intensity of the second wave, the… new variant and the government’s reaction.” And they were frustrated at NL clubs receiving “compensation for not being allowed crowds,” whilst there was no provision “for (our) clubs… since we were denied crowds via the tier system and lockdown.” They hoped for “better news shortly,” after the government “offered only loans.” But NL clubs’ experiences offer no such hope.

Covid-related funding has divided the NL throughout a season which only started, in October, thanks to £10m in government grants. Clubs expected this to compensate directly for lost gate receipts. But the distribution model of the NL board, chaired by ex-FA CEO Brian Barwick, was not so-designed. And club anger led the NL to appoint an independent review panel in mid-November, under ex-FA chair David Bernstein “to meet the League’s commitment to keep its payment schedule for vital Club grant-aid under review.”

This commitment proved worthless. The panel reported in mid-December. But the board didn’t act on, or tell clubs of, the panel’s recommendations, beyond labelling some “unworkable.” And on 22nd December, with the £10m grant a holiday week-and-a-bit from running out and no obvious funding plans for 2021, the NL board were somehow “still seeking clarification” on the report’s content, while claimed that member clubs “were mainly supportive” of their “distribution method.”

Ridiculous. The panel’s brief covered the 2020 grant payments. The NL board not acting immediately on receiving the report looked like a filibuster. And Bernstein’s open letter to Barwick on 22nd December reinforced this theory. He noted a “lack of courtesy” in “responding to our correspondence” which he “could only interpret” as trying “to undermine” the panel’s “credibility,” which rendered the whole process “pointless.”

So, clubs began 2021 not knowing how they would be funded. Many told BBC Sport that they would not have started 2020/21 without grant funding beyond December. And on Wednesday, their fears were confirmed, as they were given the choice of loans, reportedly repayable over ten years at 2% interest, or league suspension.

On Thursday, 12 NL North clubs called for the league’s “immediate suspension,” because of “safety and well-being” issues and the financial consequence of any loan scheme. The suspension would give them “time to lobby our MPs and carry out our own financial risk assessments.” But even before those assessments, they were starkly clear that the lack of “acceptable funding to cover COVID testing and the loss of fans” would “render us insolvent.” And they confirmed that clubs “would not have willingly participated in any footballing competition which initiated playing contracts, without assurances.’’

Meanwhile, NL South Havant & Waterlooville have self-isolated on “health-and-safety grounds.” And Concord Rangers chairman Andy Smith told the league they wouldn’t continue without “clearer information” on “financial support for regular testing of players and staff” as “we are the only elite competition not doing this.”

On Friday, the NL board suspended the North and South divisions for a fortnight. But many deep-rooted issues will surely outlast that timeframe. Fans aren’t returning anytime soon. And the DCMS deny that “funding… was ever promised as all grants,” and said clubs could not “substantiate” their claims that it was. After all, this government’s “assurances” are, like certain NL board commitments, worthless.

The DCMS insisted that “grant applications will be assessed” from clubs able to “demonstrate” a critical need… and “unable to repay a loan.” Denied fans, most NL clubs could demonstrate that. But without written assessment criteria, such applications will likely be dismissed, with clubs ‘reminded’ how lucky they are to be playing and that there are worthier calls on the nation’s purse than football clubs with average gates of a thousand or less. Such as rugby clubs with average gates of a thousand or less, to whom the government granted three times as much money. Because… y’know… rugby.

NL board internal politicking merits closer scrutiny (be warned). But much of football’s pandemic mis-governance mirrors more general pandemic misgovernance. Over-eagerness to re-kickstart certain sectors of the economy last summer is partly why those sectors are shut or shutting again. Such as “elite” football , its continuance, or otherwise, driven by money not health.

And mercifully wrong though I currently am to have called for the EPL to pause, the justifications for continuing elsewhere remain nonsense.