Football & Covid: In favour of a firebreak

by | Dec 24, 2021

In January 2021, I strongly favoured English professional club football taking what was popularly termed a “firebreak,” to deal with the increasing prevalence of Covid-19 amongst its players, as a consequence of Covid’s “Kent” variant, re-named “Delta” to help cover-up the UK Government’s founding role in its existence.

English professional club football, prioritising wealth over health in accordance with their main raison d’etre, did no such thing, although I didn’t take that personally. Fortunately, the season was able to continue as the Delta threat eased. And it was completed in front of crowds, which were fully re-introduced this season, thanks largely to the UK Government’s founding role (credit where it’s due) in the country’s successful vaccination roll-out.

Now, though, the Omicron variant is spreading faster than Kent/Delta. So…oh…

The unremitting cynic in me is unsurprised. He/I assumed that the English Premier League (EPL) and the English Football League (EFL) would consider the high-profile ‘festive season’ matches too high-profile to postpone unless…well…I was going to type ‘lives were at risk’ but that is maybe a bit emotive. Maybe.

There seems a firm triple-logic to fire-breaking. First as Omicron is so spreadable among, say, crowds of 17,250-74,879, to take 20 EPL ground capacities purely at random. Second as it would be unfair on fans, AND fake crowd noise operatives, to play games behind closed doors again. And third as, at the time of typing, figures from South Africa, where Omicron seems to have originated and was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 24th November, suggest that the ‘wave’ it has caused will be strong…but short-lived. Maybe ‘weeks-not-months.’ A season-pause which might not be excessive given the number of postponements which seem likely without one.

For some weeks, I’ve noticed more and more references in BBC Match of the Day (MOTD) match commentaries to EPL players missing through unspecified “illness.” On Sunday, Steve Wilson said of Liverpool’s absentees from their trip to Tottenham: “Van Dijk, Fabinho and Tiago all have Covid. Henderson is ill but it’s not Covid they say” as if ‘they’ had realised that “illness” meant “Covid” to MOTD viewers and others.

So, to me anyway, the spike in EPL Covid cases last week was no surprise. Between 28th November and 12th December, cases sextupled from six to 42 as test numbers increased by fractionally over 12%. The figures published this Monday, for the week to 19th December, revealed 90 positive tests. This, though, was from “a record 12,345” tests, three-and-a-half times the previous week’s. And many media outlets reported the positive test figure only, giving a sensationalist twinge to news which actually demonstrated some of the desired impact of the EPL’s reversion “to its emergency measures,”

The impact of the slew of weekend postponements will be revealed in the next set of figures, which would best inform whether a firebreak would help maintain “the health and well-being of all concerned,” which the EPL continued to insist “remains our priority” in its statement on Monday’s EPL club meeting. But, it is unclear, and unclarified by the statement, how Omicron affected the latest figures. And the variant likely had minimal impact on the sextupling of cases as the relevant the fortnight began only four days after South Africa first tapped the WHO on the shoulder about it.

In football as in life, of course. And in EPL football as in life according to the modern Conservative government. Both entities seem over-anxious to not “cancel Christmas,” or perhaps more accurately to not be SEEN to cancel Christmas. No organised Christmas fixture schedule restrictions in football. No extra pre-Christmas Covid restrictions in life.

Monday’s EPL statement referenced “the League’s collective intention to continue the current fixture schedule where safely possible.” The phrase “collective intention,” strongly implies the sort of disunity in the ranks which was exposed within the parliamentary Conservative Party last week. The rest, which taken one way is surely the policy at all times in all conditions, gives the EPL an out-clause if fixtures continue to fall as they did this weekend.

Some EPL bosses have long-disliked ‘Christmas football,’ especially if they have previously coached in leagues with winter breaks. Liverpool were likely “among a group of clubs who pushed for the postponement of the second set of festive fixtures” (“gameweek 20,” as the EPL’s irritating-jargonists would irritatingly have it) because manager Jurgen Klopp has never liked festive fixtures. He said last Friday that a firebreak “is probably not the right thing.” But only because of its fixture congesting effect on the business end of the season. “With the schedule, we have to be more flexible,” he added.

Meanwhile, Brentford manager Thomas Frank waxed lyrical on Tuesday on the benefits of the Bees own private two-game firebreak, which “helped us massively to break the circuit…from six or seven cases on Thursday, to Saturday we only had one, zero on Monday and zero today.”

The EPL also published the vaccination rates among its players, largely one assumes because those rates are in line with rates for similar age-ranges in the general populace. More alarming was the news that 31% of EFL players were unvaccinated and that 25% “currently do not intend to get a vaccine.” Alarming, but unsurprising, as this is an EFL which includes double-Covid case but still apparently unvaccinated Ireland and West Brom striker Callum Robinson.

And equally unsurprising given the attitude of Professional Footballers Association (PFA) CEO, Maheta Molango. He said that the players union “supports the vaccination roll-out” and was “trying to help the players make the right choice based on science.” But he added that the PFA had “to acknowledge that certain people may have legitimate concerns,” his use of the word “legitimate” rather undermining everything he had just said. Could he name one such concern?

Of course, with the EFL’s Boxing Day programme shrinking as I type, purely by co-incidence I’m sure, there may yet be a ‘natural’ fire-break throughout English professional football, whatever the view of the broadcasters who pay so much of the wages. And three of Sky’s four EPL offerings were among the four weekend EPL games NOT postponed…so let’s not discount the possibility that broadcasters have a huge influence on any such discussions.

There’s certainly no pretence about broadcasters’ influence in Scotland, even though TV money is loose change compared to England’s. Still, Scottish football appears to have got things largely right…perhaps THE sign of the oddball times in which we are living. Helped by HAVING a winter break, the top-flight Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) clubs voted to bring it forward a week-and-a-bit, with Boxing Day fixtures the last until 17th January.

Prior to the decision, Matthew Lindsay wrote in the Herald newspaper that “much depends on whether Sky Sports, the top-flight’s official broadcast partner, are prepared to accommodate the request.” And, after the decision, it sounded as if he was right when SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster made sure to “thank Sky Sports and Police Scotland” in that order, “for their flexibility in accommodating these changes.” Wasn’t that nice of them?

With crowd limits of 500 imposed by Scotland’s Government on all sporting events, for three weeks from Boxing Day, finance seems to have dictated the clubs’ decision, as gate receipts are the dominant strain of money for most top-flight clubs who are not Celtic and Rangers (Scotland’s two biggest clubs, in alphabetical order). And, being Scotland, the decision is apparently all about them.

Celtic were due to host Rangers on 2nd January. But Celtic have an injury list and would lose the advantage of a Celtic Park full of home fans, with no away fans allowed after Rangers made August’s Glasgow Derby at Ibrox home fans only. So a narrative has developed that Celtic led the calls for an early break for their own ends. The Daily Record ‘newspaper’s’ Keith Jackson citing Celtic’s approach this week as an example of “Scottish football’s self-interest.” No matter that, as Lindsay also wrote: “Bringing the winter break forward…may seem like a simple and logical solution.”

And three Rangers players could be on African Cup of Nations duty when the fixture is now due to be played, on 2nd February, when they were available for the original date. So… Well…so effing what? As Lindsay wrote the fixture moves were “a simple and logical solution,” Yet he added “it is far from straightforward.” Because? Rangers “could theoretically have to play” away to Aberdeen and Celtic “without them.” And Rangers fans “would storm the SPFL offices at Hampden if they were forced to go into such important outings without key men.” Which is…OK? I’d be lost for words. But the phrase “fcuk off” exists. So I’m not.

Meanwhile, I hope the non-league season finishes for the first time since 2019, primarily because of Isthmian League Worthing. Seven-point leaders of the Christmas Premier Division table, they were two-point leaders with two games in hand over their nearest rivals when last season was curtailed, despite having played seven of their eight games away from their Woodside Road ground due to the completion of 16 months of pitch and facilities improvements work. In 2019/20, they were seven-up again, with eight games left, although others’ games in hand could have narrowed that gap to four.

Indeed, they played 42 games over the two seasons and amassed 92 points, 13 more than any other Isthmian Premier side in that time (although Cray Wanderers would have had two games in hand in any amalgamated table). Maybe if they were top three times they could get to keep the league, just as Brazil got to keep the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1970 as World Cup winners, when they won it for a third time.

Anyway… On Saturday, I said “see you in February” to my colleagues at the Non-League Paper (out every Sunday, £1.50) when I finished my last pre-Christmas shift. That was my guess on when football will be ‘normal’ again, based (like the Prime Minister, dismally) on vague understanding of the relevant science. And with no big summer football (the World Cup is in November and December, remember), a weeks-long pause in the EPL can be feasible AND manageable without causing health-threatening fixture congestion. I mean, there’s one such pause in 2022. In November and December.

It would be lovely to be as wrong as I was in January about firebreaking. It would be lovelier if the major impact of the firebreak debate was to increase vaccine uptake among EPL and, especially, EFL players and staff. And it would be lovelier still if top-flight football stopped listing wealth and health in alphabetical order on their list of priorities.

Alas, you’d get frostbite in hell before that last one happened. But two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

Stay safe. And a Happy Christmas to all you and yours.