OPINION: Cruel end for Liverpool but Premier League must stop
LONDON - It says everything about skewed perspectives that Bryan Robson’s illuminating observations about the current crisis elicited far less traction than his views on the merits of Bruno Fernandes, when a nuanced, intelligent interview he gave to Sportsmail was published a few weeks ago.
Robson, it turns out, has been spending time these desperate past weeks helping the elderly; telephoning them to make their football memories a part of the restorative process and speaking to fellow ex-professionals who are struggling.
And his conclusions about the devastation he is seeing all around? "I can’t see how we can even consider restarting sport when there are still hundreds of people dying every day in this country. It is not right. It is nonsense."
His observations are just as valid now as they were then. Hundreds a day are still perishing. Researchers from the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Imperial College, London, among others, warn Britain, with a toll already eclipsing any other European nation, could suffer more than 100 000 deaths by the end of the year if ministers relax the lock-down too far and too fast.
And yet the daily Project Restart soap opera will strike up again on Monday as clubs attempt to agree what a resumption might actually look like — with the division’s worst six teams all looking to play their ‘get out of jail free card’, as an executive at one of the other 14 puts it.
One of the few consolations when the world was first benighted by all of this was the notion of a slowing down and some new perspective on football. That the sport would not just pick up as it left off, with the same lunatic economics which pay players £200 000 a week in the blink of an eye and leave most clubs so dependent on the Premier League that it currently suits them best to play no football at all.
The recalibration has not come to pass. One day last week, the number of new Covid-19 cases stood at 18 000 a day when the Government’s target rate was 4,000. Liverpool has been suffering desperately, with a death rate nearly twice the national average. There is still inadequate personal and protective equipment to meet future demand.
Three of the Government’s tests for lifting the lockdown have not been met. Yet we’re debating starting the game on June 8: less than a month from now. Football just can’t help itself.
It is a treacherous path that this contact sport treads with a headlong march back. The fact that elite footballers have vulnerability to an illness like this has hardly elicited discussion but it should.
The physical rigours of the elite football environment have an impact on players’ immune systems, which have made them susceptible to viruses, Covid-19 included.
"Professional players have been shown to be regularly immunosuppressed,’" former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro told me four weeks ago. "This has been demonstrated by blood tests and the rate and incidence of upper respiratory tract and other infections, which is how a virus like this starts. That’s due to the amount of sport they play."
Brighton announced yesterday another player had tested positive, despite all the measures designed to make squads safe on their return to training.
The weekend’s most significant comments came from Leyton Orient captain Jobi McAnuff, expressing fears black footballers face an increased risk of death if the season resumes amid the coronavirus crisis.
Leyton Orient captain Jobi McAnuff, left, expressed fears that black footballers face an increased risk of death if the season resumes. Picture: John Sibley/Action Images
Premier League players will feel the same. The Office for National Statistics suggests black people are up to four times as likely to die from the virus as white people in England and Wales. We await a better understanding of this.
McAnuff’s comments got a little media play but not a vast amount. Nothing to puncture the ongoing din about neutral venues. Wasn’t this supposed to be the age in which the anxieties of the participants were heard and mental wellbeing mattered?
Football must return because the alternative is financial Armageddon, we are told.
Yet is that really so? Will broadcasters really demand their £400million or so of domestic TV rights cash back for games not played? Will Sky and BT want to be the ones who sank football?
There will be a financial reckoning, certainly; players earning perhaps £200 000 a month, not each week. Clubs forced to play their 17-year-olds because they cannot afford as big a squad.
Fewer agents. Poorer agents. Clubs having to live within their means, year in, year out, like Burnley — who pay no more than £50 000 a week in wages and retain cash reserves that would sustain them for eight years were they relegated from the top flight.
Instead of another seething morass of arguments about where a spectral, desperate, behind-closed-doors season should take place, the Premier League should be accepting it is over, now.
The disappointment at Liverpool would be incalculable after waiting 30 years for the title. But a new season will dawn, perhaps by September. Ask the families of the 30 000 taken by this virus within these shores what loss looks like.
In the world beyond the football toy shop, one lost title just does not matter.