The ugly side of the beautiful game

From High Street attendance to non-league football, the coronavirus continues to disrupt our daily lives.

December 31 marked the two-year anniversary of the first information from the World Health Organization about a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause detected in the city of Wuhan, China. Since that time we’ve locked, unlocked, only to lock a second and third time. Speculation has surrounded a fourth national lockdown, which can still happen if the NHS is overwhelmed. Yet there are elements within our society, including many

politicians at the top of government, who believe that our future lies not in confinement, but in learning to live with the virus.

Yet learning to live with the virus is something football, especially the top tier of professional football, is struggling to do. The Premier League has had its pandemic the wrong way. After the first national lockdown caused a brief hiatus, the Premier League restarted on June 17, 2020. While those games were far from normal, taking place behind closed doors, team bubbles were largely only not affected by the infection. However, despite fans returning this season, between December 20 and 26 the Premier League recorded a record 103 new positive Covid cases, leading to the postponement of three top-flight matches on Boxing Day. At the time of writing, the total number of Covid postponements stands at sixteen games, with only Manchester City and Chelsea fulfilling all of their scheduled fixtures this season.

Many Premier League managers have been openly critical of the way the Covid postponements have been handled, from Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp fearful of the workload his players will be subjected to due to the backlog, to the anger of Thomas Tuchel of Chelsea against the League forcing their side to play despite a number of Covid

absent the whole month of December. Indeed, Brentford boss Thomas Frank had called on the Premier League to ‘break the chain’ of infection by postponing all matches for a week. However, no such circuit breaking has been introduced,

either by the Prime Minister or by the Premier League.

So if the biggest domestic league in the world is at odds with itself, what hope does non-league play have? In the West League, Covid postponements had been rare, until December when two high-profile cancellations sparked controversy on social media. Christmas Eve saw Boxing Day matches involving Welton Rovers and Radstock Town and Helston Athletic and Mousehole. Inevitably, Welton’s indifferent recent form has been highlighted online as the reason for their postponement, despite the Club saying they have “submitted 16 (and counting) PCR positives to the League”.

In Cornwall, the fallout from the Mousehole Covid outbreak has been far more acrimonious. Accusations of falsified Covid test results were joined by claims by the Helston manager that Mousehole had ‘tricked’ the West League into having the game called off. Indeed, the League fared little better when it published Covid Guidance on its website, produced by the Football Association, prompting the Tavistock assistant manager to ask the West League it -even to “provide the data to be double pricked means you are less likely to spread COVID-19”.

Unfortunately, the ability of the Coronavirus to drive a wedge between the non-league football community is nothing new. When the FA Council voted “to conclude the 2019-20 season through Stages 3-7 of the National League system”, on April 8, 2020, it did so in the face of a legal challenge from the cabinet. lawyers based in Leeds, Walker Morris. A total of 151 clubs were listed as supporting their submission, of which 106 were from clubs participating in stages 3-6 of the non-league pyramid, 12% of all teams participating at this level. Of these, 32% came from teams occupying the first place in their respective category.

division and 87% came from the top six places. Ultimately, these teams can take comfort in the fact that their efforts may well have contributed to the FA’s decision to resurrect what was taken out, when they restructured the pyramid at the start of this season. But that doesn’t change the fact that 791 clubs in Stages 3-6 haven’t signed Walker Morris’ letter.

Expecting clubs to look beyond their own position in the league table is a

a lesson the FA learned the hard way, but at least that nettle appears to have been grasped before a ball was thrown in July this year, when the FA released its Covid Contingency Planning Update.

It should come as no surprise that the football family, no matter what level of the pyramid it is at, is as dysfunctional as any. Even the Beautiful Game has an ugly side. However, it is disappointing to reflect on the fact that the pandemic has done little, if anything, to bring Clubs together in the fight against the real enemy, Covid-19. With our hospitals filling up and our businesses suffering from lost revenue and staff absences, now is the time for empathy and understanding, not self-interest and disbelief.

Marcus Brody

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