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Newcastle manager Eddie Howe fears the integrity of the Premier League is on a “knife edge” because of the number of Covid-related postponements.
Five of the scheduled 10 top-flight matches this weekend have been called off already, but the league has so far resisted calls from the likes of Brentford boss Thomas Frank to suspend all action over the next few days to “break the chain” of infections.
Villa boss Steven Gerrard said on Friday afternoon the league was organising a managers’ get-together on Monday to address “concerns and unanswered questions” concerning the Covid crisis.
Howe, whose Newcastle side lost to Liverpool on Thursday night and are currently second-bottom of the table, are still due to host champions Manchester City on Sunday, although their boss Pep Guardiola cancelled his media duties on Friday after returning an inconclusive Covid-19 test, and is awaiting further results.
Howe said on Friday morning: “I don’t think we want half the games played and half not played.
“The league really loses something if it becomes disjointed in terms of games played. When you start losing players to Covid then the worry is the competition becomes slightly unfair and I don’t think anyone wants to see that.
“A decision needs to be made to ensure integrity is maintained in the competition. I think it is on a knife edge.
“People want to see a fair league and not disparity in games and players missing.
“I’m desperate to continue the programme myself but the welfare of the players and supporters has to come first.”
Gerrard revealed managers and top-flight captains would have the chance to discuss the criteria for postponement after a number of bosses called for clarity.
“On the back of what a lot of managers have said, we want the same thing which is for the the game to continue. There are obviously a lot of concerns and a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
“That’s the reason why the Premier League, on Monday, have put in place an opportunity for the managers to get together and I’m hoping there will be a lot of clarity which comes off the back of that meeting. There’s also an opportunity for the captains to get together and speak and have a debate on what is the best thing to do in the current situation.”
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta echoed the call for clarity, after his side’s request to have their opening match of the season at Brentford postponed was rejected.
“We have been here on the other side of the table (at the start of the season) where we had all the arguments in the world to not play a football match and we ended up playing it.”
Arteta said: “We need more clarity on why those games are not being played and what you need to not have a game played, so you can maintain the fairness of the competition.
The rules governing Covid-19 postponements were voted on by the clubs, including Arsenal, and are set out in Appendix 17 of the Premier League’s 2021-22 handbook.
Each decision is taken on a case-by-case basis, but clubs are guided that if 14 or more players are available then permission will not be granted to postpone.
Clubs will be expected to utilise under-21 players with suitable experience in the Premier League, the EFL or overseas.
However the board do also consider medical advice from clubs on whether it is deemed to be an uncontrollable outbreak, in which case it is seen as unsafe to bring players together.
Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard revealed the Premier League was organising a managers get-together on Monday to discuss Covid protocols, and said a similar gathering of club captains was also taking place.
— EFL Communications (@EFL_Comms) December 16, 2021
Where training grounds are closed, the board also considers whether squads are able to prepare properly for a match.
The situation in the EFL is equally dire.
By 1.30pm on Friday 17 matches across the Championship, League One and League Two this weekend had been postponed.
The league has introduced stricter Covid-19 protocols but revealed one in four EFL players did not currently have any intention to get vaccinated at all.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said getting vaccinated was “the socially responsible thing to do” and added: “I recognise that some people can’t get vaccinated, but we all need to encourage those who aren’t vaccinated to overcome their reluctance.
“The facts speak for themselves. The overwhelming majority of those seriously ill from Covid in hospital are unvaccinated.
“The most important thing anyone – including footballers – can do to protect themselves, co-workers and loved ones is to get vaccinated and get a booster.
“Getting the jab is the socially responsible thing to do.
“Many footballers and sports stars have used their profile and social media to encourage people to get vaccinated. I am very grateful to them. They can reach people that ministers can’t.
“I know the football authorities are also working with players to understand why some are vaccine hesitant.”
Shadow Sports Minister Jeff Smith added: “Vaccines are safe, effective and the best protection we have against Covid. The new variant shows why it’s even more important to get boosted.
“Covid can affect everyone, including fit young people, but getting vaccinated is not only about protecting yourself – it’s about protecting everyone around you.
“Footballers are important role models for millions of people. Labour would strongly encourage all footballers and everyone else eligible to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.”