Will the Premier League pause, how will the fixture calendar cope and what if things get worse?

Football - and especially the Premier League - feel they have the model to cope but a rise in cases, both inside and outside of the game, is ramping up the pressure to act

Tottenham stars in training before Fulham clash

The Premier League and Football League currently have no plans for a “circuit-breaker” to cope with the escalating Covid crisis. While some individual figures in the game have privately broached the idea, nothing of the sort has been formally or informally discussed at board level. 

The game - and especially the Premier League - feel they have the model to cope. The government meanwhile fully back that, all the more so since the safe continuation of football throughout the crisis is seen as one of Whitehall’s “successes”. Westminster are very against a pause “for the moment”, one source adds. Public Health England have so far just warned the leagues to follow the protocols, but are monitoring a “fluid” situation.

It is that fluidity which has caused another developing crisis in football, and could yet halt many individual clubs. It could also see the wider game pay for an inexplicable failure to allow even some flexibility into the calendar, something all the more galling since so many feared the current situation for so long.

As it stands, 32 games across England’s top four divisions have been postponed in December alone, to make it a total of 46 in all. All of Doncaster, Hull City, Ipswich Town, Millwall, Morecambe, Peterborough, Portsmouth, Rotherham, Stevenage, Sunderland have meanwhile reported “a number” of positive cases, to go with Fulham, Manchester City and Sheffield United at the top end.

The Premier League are fully confident they can handle the situation on a game-by-game and case-by-case basis, partly due to the finances unavailable to the lower leagues.

Testing will again take place twice a week. There is an optimism that the model has been proven to work, and clubs have just been reminded to be more vigilant with individual behaviour, such as for hugging and social distancing.

There is also an acceptance that situations like this were inevitable at some point, and that a certain calm should be kept, since the protocols are designed to adapt to this. The feeling is a certain allowance for increased positives must be made.

An element of the reaction has reminded some individuals within football of the initial backlash to Project Restart, where it often felt the understandable emotion of the circumstances - and the need to be seen to do something - was occasionally trumping the evidence.

All of that evidence still indicates that players are not contracting Covid-19 from playing football, and that the measures around the pitch almost completely eliminate the risk around games and training.

The spike in cases has not come from playing. This is why Public Health England have reminded leagues of the need to be vigilant, especially when it comes to players mixing with those outside their working environment.

That is something that always carried a greater risk around Christmas, which is why some clubs set new rules at this time, and warned players not to meet extended family or friends.

The one concern for football at this juncture is if the worsening situation in the wider public - where Tuesday saw a record number of positive cases in the UK - puts greater pressure on the government, which leads to the enforcement of a pause.

Manchester City are one of a number of clubs dealing with a coronavirus outbreak

As it stands, though, a circuit-breaker is not seen as a “reality”.

The likelihood of more postponements - and more cases - is nevertheless a distinctive reality. Sources say the Premier League will attempt to fit the fixtures in “as and when”.

It is the difficulty of this that also makes a circuit-breaker so hard to countenance for many in football.

While there is obvious scientific merit in most of the arguments against a pause, at least part of the reasoning is concern over the chaos it would create. There is barely time to fit fixtures in.

This is a wider issue that touches on player welfare, and goes beyond whether it is right to pause now or not.

Football is currently paying the price for trying to fit in an almost completely normal season in abnormal times, with two months cut off the campaign, and a now unmoveable event like Euro 2020 at the end of it.

The lack of any kind of central authority - a problem that had repeatedly come up in the negotiations about bail-outs and Project Big Picture - is again costing the game. The number of different vested interests mean there was almost no give in the calendar. No one was prepared to cede ground, both for financial reasons and political leverage in the future.

When you look at the English 2020-21 calendar, in fact, it’s really only possible to divine two concessions to the Covid crisis. Those are the switch to one-legged League Cup semi-finals, and the removal of FA Cup replays.

And that’s it, amid the most distorted season ever seen.

It stretches credulity, and is one reason why squads - and players’ physical conditions - are now so stretched. Playing the Carabao Cup almost every week through early autumn to go with multiple international fixtures now feels especially needless.

It is just baffling the game didn’t give itself more space, especially when many were concerned about precisely this problem.

Sources say minor tears are beginning to accumulate, that some players are putting off operations, and others are thereby not training. It is just a constant slog of matches, diluting the quality. It is also a situation that could be made much worse in spring with more postponements.

One senior figure within the EFL believes “2021 is going to be a very tough year” in that regard, with Covid set to cause even more chaos. Some in football are known to be “praying” the vaccine roll-out is quick and effective, and that just for reasons related to the calendar.

That chaos could well come to a head next weekend, with the start of the FA Cup third round. The Professional Game Board will pay for tests for the 44 teams outside the top division, and some fear a spate of positives at clubs who can’t operate the same kind of hermetically-sealed world as the Premier League, causing even more postponements.

The game as a whole may not currently be planning a break, but many individual clubs may get their own pause anyway.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in