Sam Allardyce has never been one to shy away from expressing the Sam Allardyce way. He played that way, manages that way and speaks that way. In a recent press conference the newly appointed West Brom manager suggested a circuit breaker is needed for football. England have finally found a field they can excel in, being shockingly bad at government and pandemic strategy. Recent COVID figures have been so worrisome, the New York Times dubbed the UK, Plague Island.
Just as the topic of COVID has replaced the weather as small talk, it often centres during pressers with managers, with many others weighing on the debate too. Chris Wilder, whose Sheffield United prop up the table, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, whose Manchester United are floating around the summit don’t think a break to football would help.
Even if the ulterior motives of avoiding relegation or winning the league might exist, other managers have shared similar views, albeit in a more tempered fashion; Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta are in agreement but understand the data, science and common sense should lead the way. Conversely, Arteta cites the respite benefits the entertainment of football can provide.
“When you ask and you talk to people and discuss what it means to have football games in this difficult period for everybody where there is not so much to do, I think it's really, really important and what we have to do is just try to do it in a safe way, as we have been doing recently.”
Bleeding hearts of the Premier League unite, the sacrifices the players and clubs are making. He’s not wrong, football is part of the national fabric, but is there a total free pass for the game regardless of the wider social circumstances? More so the elite game, the only level of sport which is set to continue under new tier 5 restrictions.
"Okay, in the last week or so something has happened and I think we will have more restrictions and more tests to try to be as efficient as we were before, but I think it can work and I think we can carry on doing it." added the Arsenal manager.
This needs some context. Last week 40 players tested positive in the Premier League alone. In contrast, last week I played a competitive community level game of football, had dinner in a restaurant and visited friends and went to watch cricket in a 30,000 strong crowd. There are 36 active cases amongst a six million population, and if it rises to 50, we’ll likely lock down and support it, so as to keep it that way.
Premier League football has had significantly robust procedures, with regular testing of players and staff, yet COVID has still penetrated clubs. How can the manager of Arsenal football club, a so-called bastion of the game, believe if a robust process has already failed, it can be improved on and still work? Where is there for the process to be improved, and why would those measures not be in place already?
The financial impact of pausing football is huge. Already fixtures are piling up and there’s nothing to give. The FA Cup third round is upon us and there’s no time for the top flight clubs to withdraw and re-format the competition, and even if they did, sponsors and TV carriers would only ask for compensation.
The League Cup has reached the semi final stage, and no way UEFA will cancel the Champions League or the already postponed European Championships. Yet every football fan says the same thing, “I don’t know how they will fit it all in.”
In fact Solskjær himself has said a break is pointless for this very reason thus suggesting the completion of fixtures is more important than the safety of the squad and backroom staff.
Let’s be fair about this. If football is an outdoor sport, and transmission is low during games and amongst staff, why can’t lower league or even non-league clubs be given the same protocols so they can play?
Elite level football has been allowed to continue because of its exceptional testing procedures, but if COVID can breach the artificially created biospheres of Premier League clubs, then surely the exception no longer applies.
Steve Evans, manager of Gillingham, confessed lower league sides (though classed as elite) are not getting tested. The financial gulf between the Premier League and Gillingham’s League One is monumentous. Clubs like The Gills need to keep playing to survive, but Evans sees the bigger, safer, picture.
The impacts of a lockdown are severe when it comes to mental health, but elite football cannot claim to be the saviour and bang such a drum, meanwhile profiting from its continuance, especially as the rest of football suffers.
Further, what of the backroom staff; the drivers, caterers, physios, kit team, ground staff, TV crews, journalists, and the pressure of continued work bestowed upon them whilst a lockdown elsewhere takes place.
If the Premier League is to continue for the greater good, and for the mental health of its fans then it should not be allowed to continue purely as its own going concern, to make profit for itself, and instead look after its fans with mental health awareness, support and initiatives instead, lead and/or funded directly by the clubs. To simply play the game ignoring the responsibility to fans, knowing the place it holds in the DNA of the country shows how low the game has sunk.