IAN HERBERT: Nothing about football is normal during the pandemic

IAN HERBERT: Football is doing its best to create the illusion, but nothing is normal during the Covid pandemic… this odd season feels like no other and any Premier League champion will have to accept the asterisk beside their names

  • The Premier League season could be stopped given the recent Covid outbreaks
  • However, even if it continues to a climax, there will be an asterisk beside it 
  • The season has been organised chaos and is a pale imitation of the real thing 

Football’s pulling out all the stops to create the illusion that everything is normal. There’s the fake fan noise, pointless stadium announcers and even the odd bit of pre-match pyrotechnics thrown in.

But nothing is normal, of course, and as we plunge deeper and deeper into the current predicament, the Premier League season is turning into organised chaos. This competition is becoming so inequitable that whoever wins the 2020-2021 edition must accept there will always be an asterisk next to their name.

It always was a pale imitation of the real thing. Elite football demands a capacity to deliver in the eye of the storm – shutting out the noise to convert a penalty or pick a pass in a febrile, partisan atmosphere. No such capacity applies now.

The Premier League is turning into organised chaos – there is nothing normal about this season

Then there was the unfathomable decision to allow some clubs the benefit of fans and others none, depending on how grave the local Covid situation happened to be: shredding the principle of fairness which the Premier League is supposed to be based on. A principle which, you might remember, certain clubs got extremely worked up about the notion of neutral venues last Spring.

You needed to be there, in the stadium, to appreciate just how much advantage 2,000 fans actually provided to Everton when they beat Arsenal before Christmas. The noise was so substantial that you wondered if any process of amplification was going on, though it was a very big advantage, either way. The chanting coming from the Liverpool v Tottenham live coverage a few days earlier also boomed out from the live stream feed.

Considering Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder was at one time making noises about bringing legal action over VAR’s failure to award his team a goal against Aston Villa last season, how can the Premier League’s London clubs, along with Brighton, Southampton and those on Merseyside get away with this kind of competitive advantage over the Manchester and Midlands clubs, Newcastle and Leeds, who have had no fans?

Clubs like Pep Guardiola’s Man City have not had the advantage of welcoming back their fans as many other clubs have 

That particularly piece of competitive imbalance – which should never have been permitted in the first place – will not be with us for much longer. The number of new coronavirus cases across the Liverpool City Region has more than doubled in a fortnight – with almost 3,000 new cases this week alone – and the argument for fans being allowed into stadiums is already unsustainable. But the new Coronavirus strain has also brought a new strand argument– about a team’s right to request a game be cancelled.

Everton unvarnished fury with Manchester City’s successful petition get Monday’s match at Goodison scrapped carried a firm hint that they suspected a manipulation of the rules. That’s what an insistence on ’full disclosure‘ and clarity on ‘why this decision was taken’ – to quote their press release – actually means.

And strictly speaking, the guidance, when football began after the first lock-down, was that if a Premier League team had 14 fit players then a match should go ahead. But that advice was issued long before a new, more virulent strain of the virus was racing through the nation, affecting young more than old. 

Newcastle duo Jamal Lascelles (L) and Allan Saint-Maximin have suffered from the effects of long Covid, ramping up fears for player health

The words of Newcastle manager Steve Bruce – whose team are still shaken by a Covid outbreak earlier in the month, when their match against Aston Villa was cancelled – demonstrate why that arbitrary number is now meaningless and why Premier League should be entitled to close down their training ground and disappear from the fray. 

‘I hope, for City’s sake, that they don’t go into double figures,’ Bruce said. ‘We are witnessing the after-effects.’

The chaos and levels of infection run so deep in Leagues One and Two, where testing is less incessant, that Rochdale club doctor Dr Wes Tensel today called for the season to be suspended. 

Dr Wesley Tensel has questioned the wisdom of continuing the current football season

The Premier League must be prepared for a potential shut-down, too. Figures released today showed 18 positive tests among its clubs between December 21 and 27 – the highest since they started testing. 

There will be resistance to any notion of a temporary suspension, of course. But the practical obstacles – including a summer European Championships tournament which allows minimal room for manoeuvre now – must be dismissed if the science suggests otherwise.

All that can be said with certainty about the five months up ahead is that there will be uncertainties and inequalities and challenges, making the act of winning a football match more of a lottery than ever, before one team emerges as champions. Champions with an asterisk next to their name.

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