Premier League clubs will defy government order to punish players who flout coronavirus rules

Ben Rumsby
·4-min read
Man City players celebrate. - GETTY IMAGES
Man City players celebrate. - GETTY IMAGES

Premier League clubs will defy a government order to punish players who flout coronavirus rules despite a backlash in which group goal celebrations were described as an “insult to NHS staff”.

In the first round of top-flight matches since the third national lockdown, players ignored protocols aimed at stamping out handshakes, hugs and other unnecessary physical contact.

A Downing Street source said: “The guidelines were drawn up by the Government and the Premier League and players should stick to the guidelines, as should people in all walks of life.”

The Premier League expects clubs to hammer home the re-introduced, tougher protocols, with managers encouraged to take the lead. But on Wednesday night there was no sign of teams doing any more than regularly reminding players and staff of their responsibilities.

After expressing disapproval to football’s leaders privately following a wave of breaches of both the sport’s and national Covid-19 rules by players, Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, posted on Twitter: “Everyone in the country has had to change the way they interact with people and ways of working.

“Footballers are no exception. Covid-secure guidelines exist for football. Footballers must follow them and football authorities enforce them – strictly.”

Eight of Manchester City’s players on Wednesday night shared a group celebration with Phil Foden after he scored the winner in their match against Brighton, following similar scenes on Tuesday night. Spurs players were more reserved when Harry Kane scored on Wednesday night, but five Fulham players celebrated their equaliser with a group hug.

The City manager, Pep Guardiola, said that while he respected the protocols “in a real moment of joy, I don’t know if we will be able to do it”. “When you score and one guy runs and the others don’t celebrate with him, it is weird and uncomfortable,” he said.

Kane said later: "We abide by the rules, it's been a strange season for everyone. It's not ideal, it's just the situation we are in. We will just have to give each other a few high fives and get on with it. We will get used to it as players. we are more than happy to adapt."

Asked on Wednesday what action, if any, they would take over scenes that included goalscorers being mobbed by team-mates and even shirt-swapping between sides, no club said they planned any sanction. This came despite a new warning for players from Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, who told LBC: “Every close human contact that is avoidable should be avoided because one in three of us will get the infection and not show any symptoms.

“We cannot relax until we have a very substantially vaccinated population. Until then, we are in a dangerous place.”

The Premier League and English Football League are acutely aware that the “optics” of players hugging and celebrating on the pitch are not good at a time when the public are being told to severely limit their contact with other people.

Even though there is no evidence that any player has contracted coronavirus on the pitch, there is an acceptance that observation of the protocols may have become too lax and Premier League shareholders will discuss the issue next week, with the threat of tougher sanctions imposed on clubs if they do not act.

Julian Knight, the chairman of parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, select committee, and fellow member Clive Efford, the former shadow sports minister, called for football to prove it could stop the transgressions.

Knight branded Tuesday night’s scenes “brainless”. “These people are looked up to, they’re role models, and not to respect any form of social distancing in that way – at a time of national emergency – is brainless at best and negligent at worst.”

Efford added: “To see millionaire footballers just flouting the rules in the way they are is just absolutely disgusting and is beyond contempt.”

Knight said he had relatives who worked in the NHS who had been “hurt” by people not respecting social distancing, while Efford branded players’ behaviour an “insult to the staff in the NHS”.

He added: “These people are absolutely putting themselves on the line every day for us, and they are appealing to people to obey the rules. And footballers should listen to them and see that they are in a position of influence where they can help the NHS get us through this very difficult time.”

Premier League managers have defended their players for celebrating goals, with some claiming stopping them embracing was impossible. But Efford said: “It’s an idiotic response. Because, basically, if you strip back what they’re saying, they are saying that football should be closed down, because no matter what you do, you can’t stop this happening.”

However, Huddleston stopped short of threatening to suspend the season and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, stressed the importance of the public “being able to watch the football on the telly” while they are being forced to stay at home.