Today’s piece is a divergence from my norm.
It may not show, but I do usually try to write something vaguely coherent and joined-up. No pretence of that today.
Rather, it’s a random set of thoughts around a common issue: the Restart, or not, of football. Each thought leads to a question-conclusion.
Among much that’s unclear – not to say bizarre – about Project Restart, one thing is evident. If two-thirds of the Premier League clubs agree to a proposal, the remainder are forced to comply – and that’s what’s going to happen. This project will get off the ground, even if subsequent developments bring it crashing back down.
I’m reading the helpfully specific guidance to players as they return to training. Social distancing is the watchword. No travelling, changing or eating together – and above all, nothing like physical contact on the training ground. No tackling, no “congested training”. Tactical sessions should be done by videoconference.
All very sensible. Except we’re going to jump straight from that into the hurly-burly, intense tackling and decided physical “congestion” of high-stakes games. WTF, as my younger relatives would say.
Question-conclusion: If such precautions are necessary for training, is it really safe to play games?
Moving on, we know there’s a big compromise necessary for any games to happen: there’ll be no fans present. I think we’re all reconciled to that. If we held out to play until normal crowds can be there, we might be waiting years.
A thornier issue, though, is neutral grounds. We were told emphatically last week – though a week may turn out to be a long time in Project Restart – that football could only resume in a limited number of stadia. The rationale was somewhat muddled, but a ‘secure’ environment and policing were certainly parts of it.
The outcry at the manifest unfairness of this was immediately ascribed by the media (not to mention by Liverpool fans) to the bottom six clubs. Indeed, they’d have particular cause to complain. Clubs like Villa and Norwich have far stronger home records than away and have most of their remaining scheduled games at home.
Home advantage isn’t simply a question of having the majority of fans. Familiarity with the ground, facilities and pitch dimensions, ease of traveling and much else contributes to it.
It now seems that the unease about neutral grounds was so widespread among PL clubs that it’s gone back to the authorities for a re-think. However, we know those authorities remain very keen to limit the number of stadia.
Question-conclusion: If safety requires the extreme measure of a limited number of stadia, is it really safe to play games?
A relatively new issue has been raised by our own Stuart Webber. He said he has no problem with relegation from the Prem and promotion from the Championship, as long as both are decided on the pitch. What couldn’t be accepted was a mix: relegation decided one way (by playing), but promotion another way (the table as-is, or whatever). The Championship must be played to a conclusion, as well as the Premier League, or the deal’s off.
I’m still trying to get my head around that. Norwich fans will naturally want to agree with him; fans of Leeds and others will want to disagree. I’m trying to be (at least a tad) objective.
It’s certainly an argument with merit, though. And while there are plans for a possible resumption of the Championship, it’s surely less likely than the Prem. Can we envisage all the paraphernalia, security, PPE and testing capability for the Prem being replicated for the Championship? I can’t.
Question-conclusion: If the Championship can’t be played to a conclusion, is Stuart Webber right that we shouldn’t accept three up-three down? And by the way, how the heck is the Championship going to determine the third promotion spot?
Meanwhile, City’s Todd Cantwell found himself quoted and pictured in much of the national press this week. The simplest formulation of an idea can sometimes be far more powerful than a 1000-word essay, and Todd’s tweet “We are people too” resonated across writers and pundits, as well as fans and his fellow-players.
His view isn’t universally shared, of course; nor is it the full story. But there may be good reason it resonated.
The government has joined the football authorities in pressing hard for a resumption, whatever stretching of rules and guidance it takes. Their rationale is that having football back on television will give a boost to the nation’s morale. (The nation appears to be more sensible, a poll showing that only 19% think it would give a morale boost – but this is the kind of idea that, like the virus, is hard to shake once it’s established.)
A few other players have put their heads above the parapet. If the Premier League resumes as proposed, and 20 of each club’s squad are involved in the remaining games, that’s 400 players in the closest of physical mixing. They have families to return to, as well as the rest of their professional and personal circles.
(Just an aside. If the black community were as well represented among ministers and administrators as it is among players, would there be quite the same keenness to press players back into action?)
Bread-and-circuses springs to mind.
Question-conclusion: As I write this, the government is trumpeting that ‘we’re past the peak’ and now only need to ‘stay alert’. Meanwhile, today has seen 3,200 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Britain and almost 500 deaths. Is it really safe to play games?
Actually … maybe there is a joined-up theme here after all.