OLIVER HOLT: Football jumping vaccine queue would be utter madness

OLIVER HOLT: Football is almost on its knees but for footballers to jump vaccine queue would just be utter madness… try selling that to teachers who are still in schools and saying our Premier League stars need it more

  • We are getting to a tipping point within football due to coronavirus pandemic
  • Covid-19 is rampaging through the UK but at present football is still continuing
  • Some footballers have been foolish with celebrations over the festive period
  • Soon we’ll have to think about pausing the season if Covid infections keep rising 

It is starting to feel a little bit as if we are playing football in a minefield. Those of us who love the game can see the reasons for soldiering on, for trying to maintain the escapism, for trying to push through and bolster the country’s morale as the coronavirus crisis becomes more and more parlous. 

But those of us who want football to play on have to be honest: it is getting harder and harder to justify it.

I still want football to play on because I believe in the arguments about it being a distraction for swathes of the population, a morale-booster in a time of trouble, a form of popular entertainment that we make an exception for.  

Football is at a tipping point in terms of pausing the season due to the UK’s increase of Covid

Aston Villa were forced to field a youth team in the FA Cup third-round defeat by Liverpool on Friday night after an outbreak among their first-team

But we are getting closer and closer to a tipping point where that simply does not work any more. If football continues to be ravaged by Covid-19, it must pause.

Football is still doing its best even in extremis. It was impossible not to be cheered by the efforts of what was effectively the Aston Villa youth team in their FA Cup third-round tie with the mighty Liverpool on Friday night. 

What a great picture it was of the boys lined up outside their minibus after the match, ready to go back to their digs.

It felt like a throwback to a more innocent and simple time. It felt like the kind of scenario that could only happen at a time like this and in many ways, it felt like the best of football. There was an undeniable romanticism about it. But it also felt a bit like a war story.

The Newcastle United manager, Steve Bruce, a man who has become acquainted with too much loss over the past couple of years, spoke for many on Friday when he said he felt it was ‘morally wrong’ for footballers and other club staff to have to keep working as the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the country continue to soar and the news bulletins grow more and more bleak.

Steve Bruce has questioned the morality of continuing the season as coronavirus cases mount

Football is an industry that, like so many others, is desperately trying to get by until things improve. But as the numbers rise and as more and more clubs reel in the face of coronavirus diagnoses among their players, there is a danger that ploughing on with competition starts to feel inappropriate and irresponsible.

The situation has not been helped by the actions of a few idiots among the players in the top divisions of both the men’s and women’s games in this country who seemed to believe that the rules did not apply to them and were happy to advertise their ignorance and their arrogance on social media, posing for lockdown-busting Christmas pictures. That caused some public support for the game to ebb away.

The Premier League issued a new hardline directive to clubs on Friday in what felt like a final effort to limit the spread of the virus and threatened action against players who break the rules. 

It was the right thing to do but they might want to make sure Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola got the memo, too. Leaping to the defence of Benjamin Mendy after he hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner was not a good look.

Tottenham trio Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso along with West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini broke rules to party despite Covid-19 restrictions in place over Christmas

Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic (left) celebrates at a New Year’s Eve party with Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic – in another breach of Covid-19 rules by Premier League footballers

I don’t blame Burnley boss Sean Dyche for attempting to find a way forward by suggesting that players getting the vaccine would help the situation but there can be no suggestion that footballers should jump the queue.

That would never work and nor would it be accepted by the public. Try selling that to teachers who are still in schools looking after the children of key workers. Try telling them footballers deserve it more. Try telling them escapism comes ahead of education.

The reality is that English football is being brought to its knees. Its strictly observed protocols kept the virus at bay for a long time but the situation is close to being out of control in the game now just as it is among the general population.

Neither acting Derby County manager Wayne Rooney nor any of his first team squad travelled to Lancashire on Saturday for the FA Cup third-round clash with non-League Chorley. Similar scenarios are starting to be played out regularly around the country.

Sean Dyche has suggested that players getting the vaccine first would help football’s situation

There is no easy solution. The clubs are doing their best. They have been told to play and that is what they are doing. They have been told by the Government they are a special case and they are acting accordingly. They are scared for their futures if they have to default on their broadcasting contracts and so they are desperately trying to fulfil them.

All that is understandable and, until the recent surge in Covid cases, the Premier League clubs in particular have done a magnificent job of protecting their players with every available precaution. Any visit to a stadium in the last six months has provided ample evidence of the thoroughness and the professionalism with which clubs are approaching their responsibilities.

But now is the time for hard questions. Now is the time to ask, as Sam Allardyce did, whether it might be better to pause the season. If the Premier League genuinely feel they have the ability to shield their clubs’ players and staff from this raging pandemic, then maybe they can make it through to the other side.

But if we have got to a stage where this really is just about the money, that is not enough. Other businesses have had to suffer the consequences of trying to arrest this pandemic by closing their doors until the worst of the crisis has passed and football may have to do the same. That tipping point is getting closer.

Lions must roam

There is a suggestion that if the British and Irish Lions cannot tour South Africa this summer, the Tests should be moved to the United Kingdom and Ireland instead.

That plan should not be entertained. The ethos of the Lions is under threat as it is, their schedule squeezed by the greed and short-sightedness of the clubs.

The very essence of the team’s existence is bound up in the idea of the tour and the journey, both for players and supporters. To compromise that, to attempt some artificial recreation of that spirit in these islands would suck the magic out of the Lions and make it even harder to rebound once the coronavirus crisis is over.

The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour is under threat due to the ongoing Covid pandemic

A hard habit to kick

The FA’s treatment of Atletico Madrid’s Kieran Trippier, who was given a 10-week worldwide suspension for gambling rule breaches and fined £70,000 in December, has had the unintended effect of focusing more and more attention on English football’s problematic relationship with the betting industry.

The uncomfortable truth is that football has grown dependent on betting companies for sponsorship much as Formula One was once dependent on the tobacco industry. 

Football’s problem has nothing to do with inconsequential cases such as Trippier’s. Football’s problem is that it has been sucked into a harmful relationship from which it must begin to extricate itself.

Kieran Trippier was found guilty of breaching betting rules surrounding his move to Spain

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