The number of positive tests returned by Premier League players in the last week has surged up to 40, more than double the previous week’s high of 18. With four games having already been postponed there is serious risk of an unfulfillable fixture pile upbringing into question the sustainability of the season. With the density of games already elevated due to the late start of the season, there is a tangible risk that more postponements would overrun the capacity to finish the season before the start of the delayed 2020 Euros.
With an outbreak at Aston Villa’s training facility resulting in the club closing it down the risk of more games being cancelled escalates. They have confirmed that tonight’s FA Cup game against Liverpool will go ahead but with a team comprised of only under 23’s players and their coach. This follows Fulham being unable to field a team for their last two games, Man City calling off their fixture with Everton and Newcastle struggling with an outbreak within their squad at the start of December.
In response, the Premier League is doubling testing to twice a week to try and combat rising cases to ensure the league continues. If that fails the competition could be in trouble.
The heavy fixture list is nearly saturated after the delayed start, the scrapping of the winter break and the demand that the season wraps up before the Euros, with the final round to be played on the 23rd of May. That means that the 38 game season has to be squeezed into a 32 week period with five rounds of midweek games and around on a bank holiday. For teams in the Champion’s League or the Europa League that only leaves three potential game times to catch up on. For Man City who already have to catch up on two fixtures and have had trouble with covid in their camp, this could prove impossible.
Going forward, if cases spiral out of control, tough decisions will need to be taken. If the league is stopped for a circuit breaker, as has been suggested, the re-arranging of fixtures would pose tough logistical challenges. It would also lead to further financial loss and a higher rate of injuries as well as millions of fans losing a welcome form of escape from lockdown woes.
On the other hand, continuing the season could risk the welfare of players and club staff and lead to a skewed division where richer clubs with greater depth continue to field strong teams whilst others are reduced to reserves and youth. With the new variant of coronavirus being even more transmissive the risk of it spreading through teams and around clubs rises, endangering more players and staff. Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles and star player Allan Saint Maxime were both side-lined for several weeks after contracting the virus and the impacts of long covid could seriously affect player’s careers. Burnley manager Sean Dyche raised concerns about the spread of covid and the effect it may have on the competitiveness of the league worrying that it ‘might end up as a skewed industry because of players missing from games’.
He has proposed a way out of the situation suggesting that footballers be fast-tracked through the vaccination programme, getting doses after the most vulnerable have had theirs, so that the game can continue and money be saved on the rigorous testing and put back into the NHS. It is an interesting proposal and offers some form of plan in the absence of an official contingency that allows football to continue. Eyebrows have been raised at the suggestion that footballers get priority and proposals have been made that PFA should cover the costs of the testing whilst stricter protocols are brought in. However, it is the nation’s most popular sport and provides entertainment and joy to millions in the country and around the world and stopping it would not only cost the fans but could also derail the entire campaign.
Ideally, the protocols in place will contain the spread and stop the further rocketing of infections but with the level of contagion that seems unlikely. If it does spread, there are going to be some very tough decisions to be made.