Football’s Covid Crisis – Time To Stop The Game

by | Jan 17, 2021

I have recently been following a series of Twitter/YouTube posts by American sports journalist, political commentator and Dulwich Hamlet fan (yes) Keith Olbermann.

‘Olbermann vs Trump’ (“this is Olbermann vs Trump, and I’m not Trump”) is a series of entertaining, often prescient rants about the “creature” Donald Trump, delivered in an oratorical style midway between rabid and head-explosion. And with his voice and this style in my head, I implore English Premier League (EPL) decision-makers to “STOP THE GAME,” as an elitist UK government lets an “elite” contact sport continue during a raging pandemic to which it is demonstrably not immune, despite its best efforts, BECAUSE it is a contact sport.

Thankfully, there was the small mercy this week of fewer positive Covid tests among EPL players and staff, though this may fuel the EPL’s complacency about the virus. The figure fell to 36 from last week’s record 40, with the number of tests up from 2,295 to 2,593. Although the EPL’s statement, mercifully shorn of the nonsensical self-justification of past reports, did not clarify how many people were tested in both of the twice-weekly rounds of testing introduced a fortnight ago. Aston Villa, for instance, recorded 14 positive cases last week, over two rounds of, presumably, across-the-board testing.

But Covid news across football remains dismal. The Football League (EFL) has long-struggled with club-wide outbreaks. And this week has been packed with them. On Tuesday, championship high-flyers Brentford postponed this week’s games with Bristol City and Reading, due to an unspecified number of positive tests, after two positive tests last week, including head coach Thomas Frank. The former game was also postponed on New Year’s Day, as reported “fears” of an outbreak among the Bristolians could not be confirmed because the testing lab was closed for the holiday.

Sheffield Wednesday “suspended” their games with Coventry and Wycombe after reporting cases last week, beating Exeter City in the FA Cup last Saturday while missing self-isolating interim boss Neil Thompson and two of his coaches, and players and staff then having to self-isolate. The Wycombe game might have been a super-spreader event, as they already had enough positive tests in the latest round to postpone their game with QPR.

Meanwhile, League Two Carlisle have deferred three games after a “quickly deteriorating” situation forced the closure of their training facilities. And in Scotland, whose Professional Football League (SPFL) is now suspended below its second tier, Celtic made such a humungous horlicks of their Covid compliance that the conspiracy theorising about them trying to get the season cancelled, to deny runaway leaders Rangers the title, sounded only slightly barmier than the reality.

I’ll deal first with the Celtic sh*tstorm, lest my head explodes just thinking about it. Celtic gave made January trips to Dubai during Scottish football’s winter break for the last four seasons. And I assumed they would not be doing so this year as there’s NO Scottish football winter break. Imagine my surprise then when reference was made, during ten-man Celtic’s loss to Rangers on 2nd January, of the squad “flying out to Dubai” hours after the lunchtime game finished.

This made no sense on any level. The “performance reasons” cited as justification for the trip were unclear, given how much of the six days would be spent travelling…or by the pool, drinking beer (see below). Celtic had a fixture on 11th January, which I’d assumed Sky had moved to Monday to fill an FA Cup third-round weekend gap in their ‘Monday Night Football’ schedule. Imagine my further surprise, then, to discover that the game was moved back to facilitate the trip…with Celtic’s opponents Hibernian dischuffed, unwilling facilitators, “fizzing,” according to Chief Executive Leanne Dempster.

Also dischuffed, if not ‘fizzing,’ was Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, although her questioning of the trip stank of bandwagon-jumping. Pictures “emerged on social media” of manager Neil Lennon and captain Scott Brown, with “pints of beer on the table between them.” And she questioned the trip’s “purpose” and whether “the rules elite players have to follow in their bubble around social distancing are being complied with.” (Celtic fans contrasted this admonition of possible rule breaches with her Scottish government “commending” Rangers’ “swift and decisive action” in suspending two players in November for actual breaches).

Imagine my even further surprise, then, to discover that ‘her’ government approved the trip on 12th November. She said the government had only “provided advice to the SFA” in November on elite training camps. She didn’t specify that advice, but it clearly allowed Celtic to believe that they could organise the trip.

Sturgeon also gave us a disingenuousness tutorial. She noted that “the world around the pandemic has change quite a bit since November.” But it wasn’t as if Covid issues weren’t then big issues, with England in its second national lockdown. And while it wasn’t the government’s “role” to “sign-off” on “what a football club does in training camps,” Sturgeon should have raised questions about it while things were changing “quite a bit,” rather than social media piquing her curiosity.

Nonetheless, Celtic’s only responsible response to the changed quite a bit world was to stay home, as required of ‘ordinary’ Scots. Imagine my final surprise, then, when Celtic went anyway. Especially after what the Guardian newspaper’s excellent Louise Taylor called “ill-advised Christmas trips to Dubai” by three Arsenal and four Manchester City Women’s Super League (WSL) players, a “headline-grabbing controversy involving leading footballers strutting their stuff on Jumeirak Beach.”

Almost inevitably, Celtic’s Christopher Jullien brought the virus home as a souvenir, having attended the ‘training camp,’ despite being injured. This meant 15 enforced self-isolations, including Lennon and his assistant John Kennedy, leaving a Celtic XI to face Hibs…FFS, even Shane Duffy started. This Celtic XI was labelled ‘strong’ but could only truthfully be described as such if it was selected for a testimonial against a lower-ranked club. Yet Hibs, who would have gone third with a win, needed a 91st-minute goal to rescue even a point, which says much about Scottish club football, none of it good.

Since then, Celtic have undertaken a tone deaf, dumb and blind orgy of self-justification (Stevie Wonder would have read the room better), culminating in a very eventual apology on Celtic TV from Chief Executive Peter Lawwell, which was neatly summarised by one YouTube comment: “Our trip was a mistake. Now here’s why it wasn’t a mistake.”

At Celtic’s first post-Dubai presser, the day before Jullien’s positive test was announced, Kennedy admitted to the “minor slip-ups” which the social media pics appeared to reveal. But that was the club’s last act of contrition for a bit. In an official statement on Monday, Celtic insisted they had “applied” all the proper ”rigorous protocols” on the trip (what “minor slip-ups”?). Like good little boys, they said they would “of course fulfil the fixture against Hibernian.” And, with Sturgeon’s words in mind, they stressed that, “as we have already stated,” the trip was for “performance reasons.”

But, in a streak of Sturgeon-ese disingenuousness, Celtic claimed that “a case could well have occurred had the team remained in Scotland, as other cases have done in Scottish football and across UK sport in the last week.” Well…yes. Indeed, Jullien may have contracted the virus in Scotland before the trip. But the “flight and team coach travel,” to which the statement also referred, were obvious extra risks. And whether Jullien caught COVID in the Middle East or Middle Glasgow was not the point of the criticism to which the statement was a response.

Celtic also claimed that while they were away, “the announcements made on January 4 significantly changed the COVID landscape.” This less Sturgeon-ese than out-and-out codswallop. The “January 4” announcements may have “significantly changed” rules and restrictions. But the “COVID landscape” had not changed, significantly or otherwise, since long before Celtic left Scotland.

Lawwell’s interview on Wednesday was clearly inspired by the flak Celtic got for their self-justification. But it was just more of the same, with a “mistake” label stuck on the cover. And even that mea culpa of sorts had far more qualifications than Celtic have had in the Champions League recently. “Clearly, it was a mistake, and for that, I profoundly apologise to our supporters,” Lawwell said, but only “on reflection, looking back and looking with hindsight and looking at the outcome of the trip.”

Having not known about the trip until it was hours away, I am unsure if I am guilty of wisdom after the event. But I am sure that the trip was never remotely wise. That should have been crystal-clear after the WSL teams’ incidents. And it is now crystal-clearer that the club has arrogantly disgraced itself, from the trip’s planning through to Lawwell’s self-serving ‘sorry, not sorry.’

Crystal-clear to the world, too. On Thursday, Russian club Spartak Moscow, last seen at Celtic Park in 2012 losing to Celtic in the Champions League for a second time in three months, asked Celtic, via their official twitter feed for “any tips?” as “we’re in Dubai.” One tip would, of course, be “go home, there’s a pandemic on.” But arrogant tone-deaf-dumb-and-blindness is a global football trait. Celtic are a laughing-stock. But the global arrogance of football is no laughing matter.

Lawwell should certainly resign over this (although, equally certainly, he won’t). Not least because he had me nodding in agreement to the point of neck pain with BBC Scotland’s Tom English. I have often criticised English’s blatant applications of double standards, lambasting Celtic for behaviour he happily excuses or even actively supports at other clubs. But he was pitch-perfect on Celtic’s tone deafness: “a club that doesn’t just have a problem reading the flight of a football into their own box but also has an issue in reading a room.” Tom’s a fabulous writer. When he wants to be.

Yet Celtic are only the worst of a number of protagonists in this scandal. Scotland’s governmental and football authorities share the miniscule minority of the blame unattached to the club. And their attitude is indicative of football’s general arrogance, born of the belief that the game is serving a noble purpose which justifies the oft-cited “one rule” for it and “another rule” for everyone else.

And, of course, wealth still trumps health, as the WSL farrago, sort of, revealed. The three Arsenal players were in Dubai on a “business trip,” about which they neglected to tell their club. Katie McCabe was “meeting her agent,” who doesn’t need to have heard of Zoom to be a dab hand at contracts, I guess. And Manchester City’s quartet, Taylor reported “departed with the blessing of the club, who agreed they had commercial reasons to make the journey.”

However, when Manchester United boss Casey Stoney admitted to a “poor error” in letting some of her squad “go away on a break” and join the Arsenal/Man City seven, the trip was reported as “an ostensibly commercial event” which combined “commercial interests with leisure” and thus “could be classified as being for business.” West Ham captain Gilly Flaherty had another phrase for it. Calling for the Dubai business-trippers to apologise, she said: “I really don’t like the arrogance that the money and wages have brought into” elite women’s football since it turned full-time professional.

Meanwhile, the EFL reported 123 positive results from 4,038 tests in the week to 10th January, the first figures from the EFL’s twice-weekly testing regime. And these are not, mostly anyway, financially privileged people, hermetically-sealed from the virus and almost every other aspect of real life, as EPL players so often reveal themselves to be.

Further down English club football’s pyramid, the boards of Northern Premier, Southern Premier and Isthmian Leagues (collectively, the “Trident Leagues” because…erm…) have just recommended nulling-and-voiding 2020/21, ahead of a survey of member clubs on their preferred fate for the season. Isthmian League chairman Nick Robinson (no, not that one) wrote to all Isthmian clubs, outlining the many, MANY issues involved. And he hit a fair few nails on the head in doing so, which is another article’s worth of material…if you don’t behave yourselves.

And, in keeping with tradition, “blame the victim” got another airing this week, this time from Tory MP Julian Knight, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary select committee chair, and from committee member, Labour MP Clive Efford.

Players’ goal celebrations are the latest excuse for governmental inability to control the pandemic. After his players were criticised for their ten-man celebration of their goal against Brighton on Wednesday, Man City boss Pep Guardiola doubted that they “would be able to” follow new EPL guidelines on making goal celebrations contactless, with Brighton boss Graham Potter calling such celebrations “an instinctive reaction.”

Efford, eschewing perspective, called the celebrators “an insult to the NHS.” And Knight told the Times newspaper that it was “ridiculous to say that its just instinct, of course players can stop doing it,” like he’d ever been near such a situation in his life. “Let’s not have this jumping on top of each other in the face of everything we are trying to deal with,” he added, in mild school-masterly mode. “Its completely the wrong optics to see players piling on after a goal.”

Guardiola, whose mother died of the virus in April, responded impassionedly: “A lot of people are dying every day and a lot of people are being infected – but please, the situation that is happening in the UK is not due to football players.” Especially those who are multi-tested before taking any field for what is, the MPs and – worse – football’s own authorities seemed to forget, a contact sport. As Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp suggested, fans are “smart enough to tell the difference between people who are constantly tested and not tested. It makes a massive difference.”

Yes, players have responsibilities and not all are being responsible. But the over-arching problem remains the continuation of “elite” contact sport at the height of a pandemic of a disease transmitted BY contact. The main criticism of Charley/Chorley’s FA Cup victory celebrations is their atonal rendition of an Adele song, in a telephone box of a dressing-room, while their “physicality” in the game is lauded.

In August, the FA issued guidelines for social distancing at setpieces. But no-one is seriously suggesting that the game become non-contact for the duration of the pandemic (imagine VAR in that scenario). So only one solution remains.