Football & Covid: No Longer a ‘Crisis’, But….

by | Mar 12, 2021

The disconcerting news of Shrewsbury Town manager Steve Cotterill’s return to hospital, with “Covid pneumonia” (which my father caught last July) is a reminder that in football, as in life, the Covid threat remains.

Cotterill spent 33 days in Bristol Royal Infirmary recovering from the virus, for which he first tested positive on New Year’s Day. He was released on 16th February but re-admitted over the last weekend in February. My father survived and recovered in full. Here’s to Cotterill surviving and thriving too.

There have been two positive Covid tests among Premier League (EPL) players and staff in each of the last five weeks, with test numbers ranging from 2,633 to 2,970. There were 2,875 tests in the latest round, 1st-7th March. Over the same week, the English Football League (EFL) had three new positives, from 5,409 players and staff, after the figure had also been two a week earlier. The EFL also noted that 71 of their 72 clubs “returned zero positive results over this period.” But while this weekly report was meant to anonymise clubs with cases, it was never likely to work if there was only one.

The one was Championship strugglers Rotherham United, one of two EFL clubs with positives the week before. That led to their games at Brentford on 6th March and at home to Luton three days later being postponed, plus the closure of their training ground, Roundwood, last Friday. This week’s cases, discovered on Sunday, meant Coventry’s trip to the New York Stadium being put back. And, worryingly, the club reported “several more” positives among test results received on Monday.

Both they and the EFL will be “investigating” the causes, as is standard. But this is the second spate of Covid at the club, after games against Derby and Middlesbrough were put off in December. So these probes could provide valuable insight. Meanwhile, the fixture disruption has left the Millers on the verge of three-game weeks. After Saturday, they will have either three or four games in hand on their relegation rivals. But those games in hand are becoming a burden, this late in the season.

With three teams going down, Rotherham are third-from-bottom, three points and three games behind fourth-bottom Birmingham City, whose under-pressure manager Aitor Karanka recently complained that “they are going to play maybe when the other teams know their positions.” As if this was all part of a cunning South Yorkshire plan. Or the f**king point.

Scottish clubs have received countless government warnings about Covid regulation breaches. Yet one Scottish club seemingly has nothing to fear. First Minister (FM) Nicola Sturgeon has been dealing with other rule infraction allegations recently. Meanwhile, when other Scottish politicians this week claimed that Rangers’ fans Glasgow city centre celebrations of their club’s first-ever Scottish title were “unacceptable,” it was only hard not to laugh if you were shouting “f**k off” in response.

Certain of Scotland’s football media called for the five Rangers players who breached regulations last month to get a second chance. And, hey presto, party-goers Calvin Bassey, Nathan Patterson and Bongani Zungu were used substitutes in Rangers’ Europa League home game with Royal Antwerp, ELEVEN days later, Patterson scoring a minute after coming on at half-time. That’ll teach ‘em.

The quintet face SFA disciplinary procedure on 25th March. But the sense that Rangers are above the law remains among widespread Glaswegian conspiracy theorising. Rangers’ external inaction against the quintet fuelled such speculation. And, armed with this impunity, Rangers fans gathered right outside Ibrox on Saturday, encouraged by the team, who celebrated in front of them straight after they beat St Mirren to all-but-clinch the title. And thousands more landed on Glasgow’s St George’s Square on Sunday, neither gathering giving one f**k between them about social-distancing et al.

Police Scotland (PS) arrested 28 in the square and issued an unspecified number of fixed penalty notices, for what Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland said were restriction breaches, “disorder incidents and the use of pyrotechnic devices.” But they could have made, literally, thousands more, if they could have handled the admin.

Sturgeon tweeted at 4.10pm that the gathering “risks lives and could delay exit from lockdown for everyone else. If (they) care at all about the safety of others, and the country, they will go home.” At 7.28pm, she added: “I share folks’ anger at this. Everyone has made so many sacrifices in the past year and seeing a minority risk our progress is infuriating and disgraceful. It is deeply unfair to the entire country, and the police have a hard enough job. Please ask fans to go home @RangersFC.”

Rangers ignored this direct plea. And during a Covid briefing on Monday, Deputy FM John Swinney expressed “profound regret” that this “silence from Rangers was deafening,” as he considered it “the duty of Rangers to say clearly and simply to fans that they shouldn’t have come out to celebrate and when they did they should have gone home.” And, citing meetings on 26th February and 5th March between club, government and police on potential title celebrations, he spoke of “our extreme disappointment at (Rangers’) lack of leadership.”

Others agreed. Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham condemned Rangers’ “lack of support over the messages we repeatedly asked them to put out to persuade fans not to go out celebrating and encourage those who did gather in large numbers to return home. It was very clear that Rangers did not take seriously their responsibilities (for) seeking to persuade their fans to celebrate safely and responsibly.” And Scotland’s “quite demoralised” chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith was sure “pretty exhausted” NHS colleagues “felt the same way when they saw so many people mixing so freely without distancing or masks.”

Such condemnation was inevitable. However, Rangers chairman Douglas Park took 1,286 words’ of exception to it, calling Swinney’s comments “totally inaccurate” but, somehow, failing to address them, while disregarding Graham’s and Smith’s comments entirely. His letter, correctly, outlined the considerable efforts Rangers made before Sunday to “engage” with football and other authorities. And he was “at a loss” as to “what more” Rangers “could have done to limit” the celebrations. But, thereafter, the only “loss” was his mind.

He made a plethora of straw man arguments. Apropos of nothing relevant, he said Rangers had “done everything we can as a club to limit the impact of Covid-19 within our bubble.” He claimed that “when players have flouted rules, we were proactive in handling the situation,” when Rangers picked three rule flouters for the above-mentioned Europa League game.

He cited Celtic fans’ misbehaviour at protests in November. He waxed lyrically, at length, about “utilising” manager Steven Gerrard “as a global sporting icon,” to tame the celebrations. And he claimed that “it would have been arrogant to issue any public statement” before Saturday, after claiming the title was “widely accepted amongst the football family (as) one of the greatest modern day sporting achievements.”

But he made no reference to Sunday’s scenes, and Rangers’ actual silence in the face of them, which was what Swinney criticised. Instead he re-iterated “my concern and displeasure at (Swinney’s) claims that there is a lack of leadership at Rangers Football Club,” which brought “my reputation as Rangers chairman and the reputation of the Rangers board and management team into question.”

So, as per, everything was everybody else’s fault. Swinney, Sturgeon, Glasgow City Council (GCC), Police Scotland, Celtic fans, Meghan Markle (OK, I may have made that last one up, whatever Piers Morgan believes), with the old Leninist tactic of “whataboutery” to the fore, again as per.

Rangers fans damaged memorial benches in the Square. And the club claimed not to understand why, when PS knew “a celebratory crowd would gather,” (an unwitting admission that the celebration-limiting strategies Park wrote about had utterly failed), the were “not removed, as is standard practice.” Thus, Rangers were indignant that no-one prepared for THEIR fans’ vandalism at an ILLEGAL gathering. Arrogant w*nk. Dishonest too. The GCC said it was “not standard practice” as “the vast, vast majority of people are possessed with sufficient human decency to not vandalise them.” Wooh. “Yeah, we know, sorry,” said no-one at Rangers.

Celtic fans were properly condemned for their post-match protests after the team’s home League Cup exit to Ross County on 29th November, which left three police officers with minor injuries. Sturgeon called them “pretty despicable,” and, after her government’s praise for Rangers’ response to two players flouting Covid rules weeks earlier, she insisted she would condemn illegality “if you’re a Celtic fan, a Rangers fan, an Ayr United fan” (she’s from Ayrshire), “or no fan of football.” Old Rangers legend Ally McCoist wondered why Sturgeon mentioned “Rangers and poor Ayr United.” But he was on Talksport, so was possibly contractually obliged to be that thick.

However, PS noted that “this (illegal) gathering,” less than 10% of Sunday’s congregation, “posed a real risk of coronavirus infection to our officers and the wider community, with no social distancing in place.” So, when the Celtic Trust supporters group organised a protest for 13th December, they named it the “Covid Compliant Fan Protest to demand change on and off the park.” And the event’s publicity listed five “pleases”: “Wear a face mask,” “stand two metres apart in marked spaces,” “follow instructions from stewards,” “do not travel from outside Glasgow,” and “keep yourself and others safe.” Lessons were learned from the first gathering. Unlike last weekend.

Last June, Liverpool won their first EPL title since 1990. As if saying ‘I told you so’ (because he had), City mayor Joe Anderson tweeted fans massing by the Mersey Ferry terminal, with the social-distancing instincts of a tactile tinned sardine. He “disappointed” the club when warning of the “farcical situation” of fans massing outside Anfield to celebrate the title. But, as fans gathered, the club left it to him, other local politicians and police to urge them to disperse.

When Celtic completed their historic second run of nine Scottish titles in-a-row last May, tabloids screamed about fans’ celebrations outside Celtic Park, “despite club’s pleas to stay at home.” But pictures and videos showed few and largely far between celebrants and that Celtic’s plea for fans to celebrate “in our homes” largely worked. In December, Celtic completed their fourth clean sweep of domestic trophies in-a-row and the tabloid again insisted that fans “defied lockdown restrictions” despite club pleas “not to gather outside the stadium.” Again, photos told a different story. Too many fans but plenty of masks. And no street furniture was harmed.

St. Johnstone won the Scottish League Cup on 28th February, for the first time, the second major trophy in their unbroken-by-going-bust 136-year history. Ninety minutes after the match, they told fans “not to come to McDiarmid Park to celebrate…due to COVID restrictions.” This only partly worked, as 400 fans gathered anyway, with pictures showing that social-distancing was at best intermittent. But, again, no memorial benches were harmed.

So, Sunday’s scenes were not the first of their kind. But they were the worst. They have given desperate Celtic fans a distraction from Rangers’ magnificent title triumph, without taking anything away from that triumph. But Rangers directors’ and fans were am off-field disgrace last weekend. And certain politicians, hopping-mad at EPL players within hermetically-sealed bubbles celebrating goals, have been as deafeningly silent on Sunday’s mass-celebrations as Rangers. Unacceptable, indeed.

As a club-patron and turnstile operator at, Isthmian League Kingstonian, my own 2020/21 is over. The Northern and Southern Premiers and Isthmian leagues, a.k.a. the “Trident Leagues” because…erm…, voted to “null-and-void” their seasons. This was inevitable after the National Leagues North and South “nulled-and-voided” too, thereby closing off all promotion avenues.

It SHOULD be safe(r) to restart in July/August. I certainly wouldn’t want to restart 2020/21, despite the precautions Trident clubs diligently took last August-to-October. Or even, as a Type 1 diabetic, having received my first vaccine dose (no, rubbish articles are NOT a side-effect… that’s a natural talent). The Tridents have done the right thing. Let’s all continue to do likewise.