The problem for the Premier League as the Covid crisis continues to escalate is that there are no good options.
The situation is increasingly messy after six more top-flight fixtures were postponed on Thursday, taking the total number of Covid-related cancellations across the Premier League to nine, with many more in the Football League.
The Premier League have said they plan “to continue [the] current fixture schedule where safely possible”, raising serious questions about public health and the sporting integrity of the competition.
Is there really a safe way to continue staging matches in the midst of the worst national spike in cases since the start of the pandemic?
Players and club staff are now being tested daily, but even the return to strict Project Restart protocols is unlikely to halt the spread of the ultra-transmissible new variant through squads.
Meanwhile, supporters and matchday staff are also being placed at risk from games continuing.
The Premier League are led by Government guidance and the introduction of Plan B measures, including vaccine passports for matches, is designed to mitigate risks. Again, they are not nearly enough to stop the spread at grounds.
Sporting integrity is less important than public health, but ploughing ahead also raises questions about the sanctity of the competition.
Tottenham already have three games in hand, while some clubs remain relatively unaffected as their rivals are forced to play with decimated squads.
The alternative, which is set to be discussed at a meeting of top-flight clubs on Monday, is a short pause to the season or circuit-breaker, called for by Brentford manager Thomas Frank on Thursday, to allow outbreaks to be brought under control. The move will gain more traction if there are more cancellations to this weekend’s five remaining Premier League fixtures but it is no guarantee of success.
With the current spike in cases still yet to peak, there are concerns a circuit break would make little difference. How can the League return on, say, Boxing Day or January 1 if there are more cases than when it stopped? And at what point do calls resume for another break once the cases begin again?
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Thursday outlined these concerns, saying: “I don’t see the massive benefit of [stopping the Premier League] because we come back [and] it is still the same.”
That said, Spurs appear to have brought their Covid outbreak under control after an enforced break, which has seen their last three matches postponed and their training ground closed for three days, suggesting a circuit break could be beneficial.
One solution would be for squads to form Covid-safe bubbles, but it is neither fair nor practical to force restrictions on players when the rest of the country remains unrestricted, particularly over Christmas.
If the top flight plans to plough ahead, the Premier League board should be at least more proactive in deciding cancellations, so it felt like a step in the right direction that four of Saturday’s matches were postponed last night. Calling off games on the same day is occasionally hard to avoid but leaves supporters and clubs in the lurch.
Spurs’ squad was already in a Leicester hotel when they received word at midday on Thursday that their match had been postponed, while Watford’s supporters were either at Burnley or en route when Wednesday’s fixture at Turf Moor was called-off two-and-a-half hours before kick-off.
Amid the chaos, one thing is clear: the leading protagonists are governed by self-interest. The Government is unwilling to impose new restrictions in the current climate, or lose the distraction and entertainment value of the Premier League during this bleak Covid wave.
The Premier League are loath to pause the season or diminish their product by reducing attendances because they have lucrative television contracts to honour, also a consideration for many clubs.
The clubs who are particularly ravaged by Covid, including Brentford and Manchester United, naturally want a circuit break and the clubs who are relatively unaffected at present, like Klopp’s Liverpool, are naturally more sceptical of the idea.
The question for the game to ask itself as the debate rumbles on is whether this self-interest should now be put to one side for the sake of public safety.