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.

Mud, ice and rain – half a century ago, we loved them

THE 2021-22 season marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest Football League title races of all time, 1971-72. What made it so notable? Four teams – Derby County, Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City were all in contention with just a couple of games to go. That season was arguably the end of a football mini golden age that started with England winning the World Cup in 1966. Certainly, characters like Manchester City’s Malcolm Allison felt the five-year period between 1967 and 1972 was very special.

For all those that like to tick-off lists of football grounds visited, around a third of the stadiums used in 1971-72 have since passed into history. Of the 22 first division grounds, 10 have been demolished and replaced with new stadiums. There are some very famous grounds among them:  the Baseball Ground, Highbury, Maine Road, Upton Park, Highfield Road, Filbert Street, The Victoria Ground, Leeds Road, the Dell and White Hart Lane. There are some classics among that lot.

Some of those that have disappeared since 1972 had real character, such as Highbury’s wonderful art deco stands and rusty old Roker Park. While the locations may have changed, 14 of the 22 top flight clubs of 1972 are still playing at that level, seven are in the Championship and one (dear old, Ipswich Town), is languishing in League One. The past 50 years has seen most suffer ups and downs, but the giants of the game have largely retained their status.

But just how different was football in 1971-72? You only need to go as far as the old green carpet to see the fundamentals have been transformed. Look at those pitches today, like bowling greens or a tea-sipping garden party at Buck House. Whatever happened to mud, that great leveller? And the waterlogged pitch, with spray flying into the air when the ball rolled along the sodden turf? Like most things in life today, the rough edges have been trimmed off like unwanted fat on the Sunday roast. Mum used to create cup shocks, derail title runs and make heroes out of centre-halves who were covered in the stuff as they gallantly defended their goals.

Have we now created a sport that has to be played on a Subbuteo pitch where nothing out of the ordinary can impede the perfect journey of the ball? You could argue that a game that has so much money hanging on it, not to mention emotional baggage, should take place on an immaculate surface, and you’d probably be right. Today, there can be no excuse for a top level club with a suspect pitch.

But back in 1971-72, some clubs had very dodgy pitches – Derby County and West Ham among them – and Arsenal were a trailblazer in having under-soil heating. For most, though, if a pitch was frozen, the answer was hay, sand and rubber studs. And then there was Keith Weller and his ballet tights! 

In those far-off times, fans, believe it or not, actually used to revel in a game played on poor conditions. Very rarely did a game get called off once it got underway, but sometimes the ball refused to roll and players skidded around like Bambi on ice. While the fans might complain at the “lottery” aspect of a bad pitch, they also didn’t want games to be postponed.

We have, in all probability, seen the end of the frozen pitch and mud is rarely tolerated, unless you watch non-league football. Even then, games are often called-off quite randomly and you sometimes suspect that if a manager doesn’t have his full squad available, he will push for a postponement when the weather turns difficult.

Fifty years ago, we didn’t mind a a challenge and some of the best games took place in driving rain and cloying mud. Sometimes it was the only way to stop George Best or Rodney Marsh, to name but two players from the era.

This isn’t a “better in my day” rant, because the spectator experience is probably more agreeable today than it was in 1972. Comfort was not a priority and facilities, at best, were fairly primitive, but far cheaper. It’s easy to get nostalgic about the game of your youth, but even as a baby boomer, I think visiting a football ground today is a more civilised and agreeable pastime. Regardless, I believe the 1971-72 campaign, with Brian Clough’s Derby County winning the title at that muddy ground and creaky George Eastham netting a winning goal at Wembley for Stoke City, was something of a landmark year.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends, reproduced by kind permission.