Crisis talks involving managers and senior players failed to lead to major breakthroughs last night, but unions rallied behind Guardiola after he raised the possibility of industrial action.
The Manchester City manager immediately couched his suggestion by saying a strike will not happen “because we want to play”. However, amid mounting anger at the packed Christmas schedule taking place while Covid rates soar, the Professional Footballers’ Association warned: “This isn’t going away”.
“Players don’t choose to speak out on issues like this without having given it a lot of thought,” said PFA chief executive Maheta Molango.
“Now it’s up to those who run the game at all levels to begin to take this seriously so it’s an issue that can be addressed constructively with players at the heart of the conversation.”
Two meetings were held yesterday, one with managers and one with captains and senior players, after club executives elected earlier this week not to implement a firebreak due to rising Covid cases.
To add to the sense of anxiety within squads, Covid outbreaks at Leeds United forced their St Stephen’s Day clash with Liverpool to be postponed while Watford v Wolves also suffered a similar fate
The league apologised to fans for fresh disruption, which also caused chaos for BT Sport as the postponed fixtures were the only two being played in the broadcaster’s 12.30pm slot. BT had been due to broadcast from Anfield, but will now show Tottenham against Crystal Palace, which remains at 3pm.
The fixtures became the 11th and 12th top-flight matches postponed as a consequence of the virus in recent weeks, prompting Guardiola to raise the possibility of radical action.
Suggesting a strike may be the only way to get the authorities to listen, he told reporters: “Should the players and the managers be all together and make a strike, or something, because just through words it’s not going to be solved?”
However, when asked how likely industrial action was, he added: “No, I don’t think so because we want to play. We want to continue –
to make the people happy going to the stadium on the 26th, 27th, 29th, 31st and 1st, and play games, because we love to do that.”
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has been one of the leading voices in describing the toll being placed on teams as the Covid surge depletes squads. He has said earlier this week he was “concerned” that “nobody really takes player welfare seriously”.
Despite all the criticism, the matches on December 28 and 29 remain likely to go ahead as planned. Sources at the managers’ meeting yesterday said talks failed to lead to any breakthroughs, with only a minority of coaches saying the games must be cancelled.
Leeds had recorded five new positive Covid cases ahead of the Liverpool fixture – but said they are all “asymptomatic, which we believe is due to our high vaccine take-up”. The club has previously said “99 per cent” of players were jabbed.
“The positive cases, combined with our well documented injury issues, means that we would not have enough recognised first-team players to meet the Premier League requirements for the fixture,” the club added. “The training ground at Thorp Arch will be closed for a period of two days on the advice of Public Health England.”
Watford, meanwhile, confirmed they “have an insufficient number of players to field a team” after their game against Crystal Palace last Saturday was postponed. “Due to players coming out of isolation, it is fully expected Watford will be available for their fixture on Tuesday, 28 December, against West Ham United,” the club added.
The league said in a statement: “We apologise for the inconvenience and disruption caused to those fans’ festive plans. The league is aware that the decision to postpone these two matches will disappoint supporters and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games.”
Sky had also been facing a gap in coverage in its EFL coverage after 10 matches across the Championship, League One and League Two were called off.