Footballers are the ones we rely on to provide that much-needed entertainment, the spontaneity that reruns of Euro 96 and Only Fools and Horses cannot provide. There are, however, numerous hurdles to jump before Premier League clubs can even get on to the training ground uniformly and, assuming they do make it back to the hallowed turf, things will get more complicated.
Without using public transport the players are due soon to return to work, washkit in hand, ready to potentially restart a season three months since the most recent match. The Premier League is aiming to resume the season on the weekend of 13-14 June. The first step to allowing the world to witness England’s top flight again will be physically distanced training where participants need to keep two metres apart.
Medics are concerned about the impact Covid-19 could have on the lungs and heart in the long term and the fact that those who contracted the virus may be unable to regain full pulmonary capacity in the immediate aftermath. Players at one European club have complained about being unable to exercise for more than five minutes upon recovery from the virus, leaving many to wonder what effect a return to training will have.
“There should be individual risk assessments on everyone,” Football Association cardiologist Dr Aneil Malhotra says. “People are being paid to push their hearts whether it’s for Scunthorpe United or Manchester United and at the end of the day we have the responsibility as physicians to make sure everyone is safe to return to play. The club doctor should sit down and perform a clinical assessment. If they do report any symptoms then you would go on to perform further tests.”
In Turkey, the Besiktas squad were disinfected from head to toe in a Tardis-like machine before being allowed to enter the building, taking temperatures is the new norm, and some teams train in rubber gloves. The Premier League will go one step further and encourage masks. Dressing rooms will be no-go areas, meaning players drive in wearing training kit and wash it at home, a system already operating abroad. A club doctor explained how some individuals will be carefully monitored because of worries they could be overwhelmed by a return to the outside world in a physical environment having lived alone for about two months.
Even in these days of zonal marking, staying apart on a pitch while providing effective training will be complex. Coaches will have to be creative to ensure they keep their players interested after two months of Zoom sessions and personalised exercise programmes. One player told the Guardian that video conference training was “a waste of time”.
In Sweden, clubs have been training for a long period, which included a phase of contact-free sessions. The former Bristol City manager Keith Millen, now in charge of the second-tier side Örgryte, had to improvise a new style of activity. “It gets you thinking about what you are going to do training-wise,” he says. “There is a lot of stuff you can do unopposed, especially when it’s like a pre-season, so it’s not a bad thing anyway when you are building a player’s fitness and getting their bodies ready for competitive football. You do a lot of training where you don’t want much contact, so it’s not been too bad. There’s been a lot of mannequin work, getting mannequins out every day as your opposition.”
Re-engaging with the sport will be a good start, but any footballer or staff member will be more than happy to explain the difference between being fit and match-fit. A number of players explained it would take three weeks of normal training to get back to a competitive level and matches would be required. Without friendlies to build momentum, competitive fixtures are likely to be an inferior product when they start, especially inside an empty stadium. There are also fears that teams will need to prioritise games – and almost ignore others – because they will come thick and fast, resulting in questions over the much-trumpeted integrity at the heart of the season’s conclusion.
All players will be tested for Covid-19 but this is not the perfect solution it is made out to be. Once all the results are returned, those that come back negative will be able to begin full physical contact training. However, almost a third of tests provide false positives, a number of doctors have told the Guardian, which could leave many players in isolation unnecessarily and potentially whole teams in quarantine. One potential plan would be to cut the quarantine time to three days for those who show no symptoms before retesting them. If a player has symptoms he will be obliged to tell his club, having signed a document to say he will abide by the rules, putting the emphasis on self-regulation.
Players have expressed concern that they are putting their families as well as themselves at risk. Eibar’s players released a statement which summed up the feeling of many in the game: “It worries us that by doing what we like most, we could get infected and infect our families and friends, and even contribute to a new wave of the pandemic – with the terrible consequences that would have for the whole population.” It is a reminder among all the fanfare of football potentially coming back that players are only human and some will have relatives on the vulnerable list.
All the best practices will be put in place to minimise the risk to players but, as with everything related to coronavirus, the unknowns are where the dangers lie. Before games are scheduled, clubs should have to prove their safety protocols are working. A number of weeks of training without a case of Covid-19 would be evidence of that.
The foundations are in place for a return to football but they could be supporting a house of cards and only time will give us the answer.