Premier League clubs frustrated by ‘reactive’ handling of Covid chaos

Members of coaching and medical teams at top-flight clubs spoke to Melissa Reddy about their concerns amid rising cases and fresh game postponements

Thursday 16 December 2021 14:46
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<p>Fans must now show NHS Covid passes or negative test results to get into Premier League games</p>

Fans must now show NHS Covid passes or negative test results to get into Premier League games

Premier League clubs are increasingly concerned the sharp rise in Covid cases is only going to escalate, which could force a pause in domestic action or a return to behind-closed-doors fixtures.

The Independent has spoken to staff throughout the division, from coaches to medical teams, to understand how the virus could potentially shape the festive period and beyond.

Five top-flight matches have already been postponed, while Tottenham's Europa Conference League clash against Rennes will not be rescheduled and has been referred to a disciplinary panel despite Spurs dealing with an outbreak.

Further requests from clubs to shift games due to Covid have been turned down this week, but the belief is that the pleas will multiply.

And while the league is understood to have had assurances from government over operating as is for as long as possible, the reality is that restrictions are bound to tighten if numbers continue to balloon in the sport as well as in general.

Germany has already returned to ghost games in areas with high Covid rates and there are growing fears that empty stadiums could be on the cards here, too, especially with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Plan B” undermined by No10 officials breaking lockdown rules last year.

There is no appetite to return to what Patrick Vieira labelled “the worst-case scenario”, but multiple voices admitted the Premier League have left it late to reinstate "emergency measures”, such as the frequency of testing, when it was apparent the winter months would promote a swell in cases.

The emergence of Omicron should have “absolutely forced stricter protocols immediately”, according to one source that said the handling of Covid has once again been “reactive rather than proactive”.

Another suggested that the Premier League should have “put the winter tyres on in October rather than wait for the snow”.

There are growing concerns that behind-closed-doors games could return

The record-high 42 positive results posted in the last round of testing have been furthered by several teams revealing fresh cases among their squad and staff.

One of the knock-on effects has been the inability to properly rotate during a stacked schedule, placing increasing physical demands on footballers, which naturally leads to a spike in injuries.

Brendan Rodgers circled this issue when revealing that Leicester, with nine absentees – some due to Covid – were denied a request to postpone the fixture against Tottenham. That has, however, since changed, with the match called off on Thursday afternoon.

“We’re a team and a club that have always wanted to support all the measures and everything else, but maybe when you need a little bit of support with the extreme situation that we’re in, we weren’t able to get that, which was disappointing,” Rodgers said.

“We’ve picked up a couple more injuries as well that are maybe not directly from Covid but they’re certainly Covid-related, because players are picking up injuries because we can’t rotate the squad and the team.”

Dean Smith, Thomas Frank, and Mikel Arteta have joined Rodgers in calling for greater clarity over the criteria for a game being rescheduled.

The Premier League insist this is outlined very clearly in its handbook and is not ad hoc, but several sources pointed out that the board considers each set of circumstances individually. They note there have been differing levels of spread at the clubs granted postponements.

Brentford’s hosting of Manchester United was among this week’s postponed matches

Guidance indicates that calling off games can only materialise under “exceptional circumstances” and permission will not be granted if 14 or more players from a squad list are available.

One frustration for a few clubs has been the lack of transparency regarding positive cases.

Reports often point to a “small number of players and staff” contracting the virus, but one conditioning expert says this leads to a “distorted view of what’s happening. The breakdown of positive tests between players and staff should be made clear.

“Health matters are obviously personal, but in the age of a global pandemic, it would be very helpful in the main – not just football – if players revealed they tested positive. We’re still in a war against conspiracies.”

One of the most problematic has been the erroneous linking of cardiac arrests to the vaccine. Zafar Iqbal, the head of sports medicine at Crystal Palace, has attempted to debunk this. “Athletes have collapsed while competing before Covid vaccinations,” he tweeted. “And those that [collapsed] recently in the UK, have not been found to be due to vaccine (because they’ve not had it) or they have another underlying or pre-existing medical condition causing collapse.”

However, there are still footballers opposed to getting jabbed owing to such fears.

One club are said to have used the example of a regretful Joshua Kimmich when speaking to players

It is understood one Premier League club have made sure to highlight and stress Joshua Kimmich’s regret at not getting vaccinated sooner around the training complex and in team meetings; a use of personal messaging they hope players will relate to and learn from.

The division's last figures, released in October, indicated 69 per cent of footballers had received two doses of a vaccine. Clubs have been rolling out boosters and some managers have been quite vocal in encouraging their squads to get jabbed and are noticing greater uptake.

Jurgen Klopp revealed that everyone reporting to Liverpool’s training ground is “at least double-vaccinated and will get the booster as soon as possible. The whole vaccination thing for me is a question of solidarity, loyalty and togetherness.”

The Merseysiders have been one of the teams to fully subscribe to extensive safety and prevention measures since Project Restart and have largely managed to avoid Covid-related problems.

The Premier League, meanwhile, is currently reviewing its vaccine data with a view to providing an update on the percentage of players that have been double-jabbed.

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