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Premier League Must Exercise Caution in Return Fraught With Lethal Hazards

Premier League Must Exercise Caution in Return Fraught With Lethal Hazards

Wednesday, 6 May, 2020 - 05:00
Atlético Madrid fans at Anfield for the Champions League game against Liverpool on 11 March. Photograph: Craig Galloway/ProSports/Rex/Shutterstock
London - David Conn

Fair play to the Premier League, EFL and everybody trying to plot a cautious way back to normal life, but amid their expert advice‑taking and scenario‑modelling it feels increasingly that they should also be stress-testing the alternative – calling the season off.


The more savvy professionals involved are exercising caution about the government’s position, after another oddly judged intervention this week by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, who said that – health guidance permitting – he wanted to “get football up and running – as soon as possible”.


Bill Shankly’s classic quip about the importance of football when manager of the club who could still be crowned 2020 champions whatever happens, was cast in terribly serious perspective after the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough in the 1980s. Now, considering whether to play professional football in the middle of a pandemic is literally a matter of life and death.


One of football’s perennial failings is to inflate its obsession into a bubble in which the great game’s dramas, outcomes, personalities and controversies seal it off into an alternative world which can feel somehow as significant as everything else. Hearing Boris Johnson mention “our current success” in dealing with coronavirus, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, deny that allowing the virus to run through the population and achieve “herd immunity” was ever “part of their plan” and the refusal by the government to admit to a single failure, they often appear to be creating a bubble of their own.


For people not in the front line of the NHS or caring professions, and not stricken personally by the virus, lockdown can make the horror of this situation feel unreal. But 27,000 people in the UK have died, each one a tragedy and grievous blow to a family.


Into the second week in March, Dowden and his government were still encouraging people to go to matches and the Cheltenham Festival, based on scientists’ advice that “mass gatherings” pose a low risk of virus transmission. Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College explained that with reference to the Liverpool v Atlético Madrid match played on 11 March. “Some people will have got infected,” he said of the transmission potential of mass gatherings, “and if it hadn’t happened they wouldn’t have been.” But he went on to explain that “at a population level, stopping them has a marginal impact”.


But in normal circumstances we do not think of a risk to some lives as “marginal” because they are not many as a proportion of the whole population; normally everything is aimed at saving and preserving life. Most of the talk in football now is about how players and staff could be tested, somehow housed in a sterile environment, how they might ingeniously be tiptoed into empty stadiums while the rest of the population are still largely housebound.


The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, was criticized by the club itself for raising public health concerns about games restarting, but however in-depth the planning may be to avoid people massing outside the stadium or gathering instinctively to celebrate, he was sounding a genuine alarm about risks.


To be balanced against those lethal hazards are the benefits of trying so hard to stage matches again. As seven weeks have gone by since football suspended itself on 13 March, against the advice of Dowden and his government that it was fine to carry on into that weekend, the significance of promotion, relegation and Champions League qualification has been put into perspective by the pandemic’s elemental threat. Now the urge to play is articulated more as a grim job of having to get the season done to avoid difficult conversations with broadcasters, and be able to keep their money.


After Dowden spoke up in parliament, more than one senior football executive told the Guardian this week they felt uneasy, as if the government needs some good news, some entertainment for the masses, and that lies behind their desire to get the Premier League playing “as soon as possible”.


Dowden said in parliament that this would “help release resources through the rest of the system”, but the EFL is understood to be baffled by that, as no more money will go down the football pyramid now if the Premier League starts playing again.


In France, where the number of people killed by Covid-19 is lower than in Britain, the government has banned team sports until September and, however much the odd club such as Lyon may grumble, Ligue 1 is cancelled, and the summer is cleared of yet another complication, to try to address the virus. If that were to happen here, however much football people are missing the game and would love current realities to be different, many people could usefully calm down.


The financial situation, of course difficult, will probably be just about manageable. If that did happen, the Premier League could concentrate on being true to the principle it has stressed throughout and did again on Friday: “The thoughts of all are with those directly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic,” and: “The Premier League’s priority is the health and safety of players, coaches, managers, club staff, supporters and the wider community.”


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