Football Media Watch: The Covid call-offs, desire or necessity?

WHEN Arsenal asked to have their big north London derby against Tottenham called off, people were scratching their heads and questioning why it was so late in the day. After all, they only had one (later two) Covid-infected players but apparently were going to be without 19 members of their first team squad. Admittedly, they have other players lost to the Africa Cup of Nations, but in theory, shouldn’t they have been able to play the game? They have a big squad, all the Premier clubs appear to have sizeable squads, so where’s the problem?

Even right down to non-league level, a manager wants to play his strongest team, so if a convenient postponement can help out when the squad is weakened or lacking some key players, then so be it. We’ve all seen surprising cancellations that turned out to be very helpful for coaches who might be in charge of a struggling team needing a break.

With TV effectively running the game in so many ways, postponements are generally not as commonplace as they used to be, but covid has given football the chance to call a game off if the virus has hit the squad hard. At the time, some sceptics did caution that this was open to abuse and while nobody really wants to say it for fear of having questions interpreted as heartless, cynical probing, increasingly, there is concern some clubs may be trying to “game the system”.

Pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have both suggested postponements should not be taking place in the age of big clubs with expensive 30-40 man squads. Neville, always willing to stick his head above the parapet, said on Sky: “What started out as postponements due to a pandemic has now become about clubs not having their best team [available]”.

The timing of Arsenal’s request was unfortunate – they had just had a player suspended after a red card in midweek (Xhaka) and had let two players go out on loan. Similarly, when Liverpool asked for their Carabao Cup semi with Arsenal to be rescheduled, they later revealed their covid testing had produced “a lot of false positives”. It doesn’t take much for football to come up with conspiracy theories or for fans of opposing clubs to quickly assume some skulduggery has taken place. 

The Athletic reported that there is a lack of transparency and consistency and suggested there has been an abuse of the rules. A case of clubs desiring a postponement rather than needing it. “The bottom line, according to one medic, is that no games should be called off given the size of the team squads and availability of back-up players from the youth ranks.”

Carragher said on Sky that “no other league in Europe is doing this” and believes there is no doubt teams are taking advantage of the situation. Interestingly, when the FA said clubs should play FA Cup games if they have 13 fit players, there was not a single postponement. This not only implies clubs are comfortable playing weakened sides and confirms what we already knew, the competition is a much lower priority among the elite.

Back to that London derby and Tottenham were clearly unhappy about the cancellation. The Guardian reported this comment from the club: “The original intention of the guidance was to deal with player availability directly affected by Covid cases, resulting in depleted squads that when taken together with injuries, would result in the club being unable to field a team. We do not believe it was the intent to deal with player availability unrelated to covid. We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule. It is important to have clarity and consistency on the application of the rule. Yet again fans have seen their plans disrupted at unacceptably short notice.”

Sources: The Times, Sky, Guardian, The Athletic, iNews, BBC.

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