Two cases. In the beginning that was all it took. First Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. Then Callum Hudson-Odoi at Chelsea. And, although a few other clubs had seen some cough-like symptoms and were beginning to fear the worst, it feels vaguely surreal now to recall that back in March 2020, the entire professional footballing apparatus in England and Scotland was brought to a halt on the basis of two positive tests.
Over time, just like the rest of us, football moved on. It hardened and desensitised. Our concept of suffering and loss began to fracture and diffuse; it stopped being something happening to us in the compound and became something that happened to us as individuals. The days when we all fixated on national mortality rates and watched severe news reports from intensive care units are gone. Big numbers stopped meaning anything to us.
Death became noise. Disease became politics. The line on the graph became a daily game. Coronavirus did not go away. But we did.
And so we arrive in late 2021. Premier League clubs are being hit by new cases, new outbreaks, new illnesses, and yet the presumption remains that the show must go on at almost any cost. Any team with 14 fit players including one goalkeeper is expected to play or face disciplinary action.
Postponements are left until the very last minute, with a bare minimum of regard for the paying public. Stadiums are still pretty much full. We are told that the safety of players and supporters is paramount and that the sporting integrity of the competition remains intact, both of which are demonstrably untrue.
On Sunday Thomas Tuchel revealed that his Chelsea side had been ordered to play against Wolves despite having seven players in isolation and a squad that had just shared a three-hour bus journey with a confirmed positive case. Norwich played against Aston Villa last Tuesday despite having players who were symptomatic, according to their manager, Dean Smith. Brentford’s Thomas Frank has called for a temporary suspension in order to allow clubs to catch their breath.
On Monday the 20 Premier League clubs met to discuss its approach to the latest crisis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the message was business as usual. The fixture calendar must be sacrosanct, even if by the end of the festive period some clubs could be four or five games behind some of their rivals.
And for clubs, torn between a duty of care to their players and staff and the financial incentive to push on regardless, the emergence of the Omicron variant and the recent wave of positive cases has placed them in an invidious position. Consider the dizzying maze of competing interests and concerns they are being required to weigh up. When and how often to test players. How to arrange training and travel to minimise the risk of contact. How soon to reintegrate recovered players into the team. How to deal with players who are unwilling or reluctant to vaccinate. How to keep their facilities and stadium safe amid an ever-shifting canvas of rules and regulations.
When an outbreak occurs, the stakes are higher still. How many players need to isolate? Who were they with? Who’s still available? Are they fit? Are they any good? Are any of them left-footed? Do you request a postponement now, in the knowledge that it will probably be turned down, or bank on a fresh wave of positive tests in the morning, by which time a fair number of fans will already be in their cars?
These are hard decisions, important decisions, in many cases ridiculous decisions, and yet by and large they remain entirely in the remit of clubs themselves rather than governing bodies or the actual government. We can quibble about the extent to which clubs and the Premier League have followed protocols, or been driven by self-interest. But surely we can all agree on the absurdity of these decisions – in many cases, pressing matters of public health – being delegated to football clubs.
And if it occasionally feels as if the Premier League is operating in a vacuum, publicly sensitive to public health concerns while doing the bare minimum to address them, then it is only really taking its cue from central government, whose time-honoured absence of leadership stopped being funny some time ago. Even now, as Omicron becomes this country’s dominant strain, Boris Johnson’s administration has refused to impose limits on public gatherings, refused to restrict the privileges of the unvaccinated, refused to offer anything beyond a wink-wink and a series of vague noises that can mean whatever you want them to mean.
We know why this is, of course. The government is still reeling from the scale of the Conservative backbench rebellion last week, still deeply embarrassed by the revelations about parties in Downing Street last Christmas, and has thus tried to nudge people into being careful without moving a single legislative muscle in that direction.
And really, how did we think football would proceed in this scenario? Unilaterally shut itself down? Restrict its own stadium capacity? Of course not. We end up, instead, with a weekend where some matches are being postponed at a few hours’ notice while others take place in front of capacity crowds. Where different clubs have wildly differing rates of vaccination and nobody really knows what to do about it. Where everyone insists that player welfare is the top priority while insisting that the fixture calendar must be played in its entirety, in the allotted time, no exceptions. After all, this is Covid Britain, and here anything goes.