Talking point | 

Football is carrying on regardless — but will they be remembered as super-spreading events?

Ground staff at Villa Park take down the goal nets after the weekend Premier League match between Aston Villa and Burnley is postponed due to Covid-19. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Ground staff at Villa Park take down the goal nets after the weekend Premier League match between Aston Villa and Burnley is postponed due to Covid-19. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Jason BurtTelegraph Media Group Limited

How will the Premier League’s St Stephen’s Day games for 2021 be remembered? Will they be the Covid super-spreading events of the year in Britain, another Cheltenham 2020, or will playing them prove to be eminently sensible and a sign that normal life has to continue as much as possible? Or will they be the round of matches that sent players – and managers – to breaking point as they struggle to cope with depleted squads and games coming thick and fast?

As ever with Covid, there are more questions than answers.

The truth is the decision from the Premier League and English Football League to (try to) keep calm and carry on was probably the only one they could make under the current circumstances. What was the alternative?

Unilaterally calling off games and then watch as further Covid restrictions are implemented by the UK government after Christmas creating even more congestion in an overcrowded calendar? Should they have their own firebreak followed by one they are ordered to take? That would have only made sense if football allowed itself some leeway – which it never does.

The reality is the Premier League meeting gave the semblance of being in control of the situation when, actually, it is not – and it cannot be. Football may be brought to a shuddering halt anyway when the next round of results come in for the twice-weekly PCR tests the players are taking.

Six of the 10 top-flight matches were called off last weekend and who is to say the same number, or more, may not fall over the next set of fixtures with another spate of positive results.

Yesterday the Premier League confirmed there were 90 new cases; twice as many as last week. Still, it does not all sit comfortably given the panic that is being caused by the spread of the omicron variant to think that stadiums will continue to be packed and thousands will travel to games.

It would undoubtedly help if fans were more observant of the rules and also at least attempted to follow social distancing on the concourses and areas around the ground. Especially as sitting outdoors in a stadium does carry minimal risk.

But here we are, carrying on and left vulnerable by a set of government rules that encourages everyone to work from home where possible but does not want to impact on their social lives around the festive period. And then forces them to isolate for 10 days if they test positive.

For football, there are a number of things happening at once. The Premier League believes it has to try all it can to keep the competition going and not least because of the financial implications of again dealing with broadcasters demanding multi-million-pound rebates if there is a pause. Unless Westminster intervenes, on it goes.

Then there are the clubs who have a similar agenda to the Premier League and certainly at yesterday’s meeting there was little appetite from their executives for a pause in the programme. Instead the main gripe aired by some was the apparent inconsistencies around why certain games are called off and not others – although the truth is they do not all appear to have read the Premier League’s own handbook. The rules are clear.

Also, there are the players and managers who will complain about the injustices, the fear that they cannot field a team, the fatigue and the workload but in the same breath will not want to accept that they might have to pay the price financially if British football stops.

They are also undermined by the vaccination rates with the latest figures showing that just 77 per cent of players have been double-jabbed. While this is comparable for their age group in the UK (the NHS rate is 78.5pc for 25-29-year-olds) this argument totally misses the point. Football cannot be played if there are no footballers because they have Covid or are isolating. After all, a footballer cannot exactly work from home.

The reality is we need to reach a stage where young, fit and vaccinated players may get Covid but because they will be minimally ill, it can be dealt with and football will not grind to a halt. It is why vaccination rates need to be far higher – as they are in other major European leagues where, surprise, surprise, there has not been the spate of call-offs.

The problem with all of this is there is no answer, even if there are obvious things that can be done if everyone is sensible enough to accept them. The first would be a far-higher vaccination rate even if, of course, the key is getting everyone not just double-jabbed but also to have a booster.

If players – and others their age – had taken their responsibilities more seriously in the past then this would not be an issue.

Secondly, it would help if the UK government immediately limited the capacity of stadiums to reintroduce a greater degree of social distancing. It would hurt football but there is enough money in the system to absorb it.

That can only happen if the third thing is observed, and that is to avoid the ridiculous to-ing and fro-ing between the Premier League and the broadcasters over whether money should be repaid for TV rights because the “product” is not what they bought if crowds are limited or even behind-closed-doors. I will shout it again: build such eventualities into the contracts. It is obvious.

If everyone took a far more sensible approach to these three things football would be able to carry on safely. Instead, as with so many other aspects of society, it is rolling the dice because there is little else it can do and hoping – this time – it gets lucky.

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