Suspicions about teams calling off games lightly to suit themselves are annoying but treating supporters like those of Hull City and Blackburn Rovers were on Boxing Day – and others have been too this month – was unacceptable.
Greater transparency is the answer to both issues.
Dealing with a new and constantly mutating disease is difficult for everyone.
It is hard to have rules for something new, although it would be easier had football not shied away from properly talking about it as soon as the 2019-20 season finally finished a year and a half ago.
Outbreaks happen quickly, so last-minute postponements are inevitable. The only way to avoid them is to call a firebreak, an idea dismissed by the Premier and Football Leagues.
But Boxing Day’s last-minute postponement of Hull versus Blackburn was not created by a last-minute situation.
Many of the 2,500 travelling Blackburn supporters were already in Hull when the game was called off two hours before kick-off. There will have been Hull fans away for Christmas Day or living beyond East Yorkshire in transit too.
Knowing what we were only told after the event, it seems clear this game had been in doubt for at least 48 hours.
We were told on Thursday, as games were being called off left, right and centre, that Hull coach Grant McCann had Covid-19. His assistant Cliff Byrne revealed: “We’ve had some cases across the playing and non-playing staff,” but when asked if the game was in doubt, replied: “Currently not”.
After the postponement, vice-chairman Ehab Allam revealed Hull told the Football League 14 people – whether or not they were just players or staff too was not clarified – had tested positive by Christmas Eve.
There were two sets of tests on Christmas Day and another on Boxing Day before the Football League was told at noon Hull could not field a team, and the postponement apparently signed off around 12.55pm.
Forget the rules. If you made Boxing Day plans and you knew on Christmas Eve you were highly unlikely to be able to fulfil them, would you not tell people out of courtesy? If you were a football club – those institutions falling over themselves during behind-closed-doors games and the European Super League shemozzle to tell us football was nothing without fans? – would you not at least warn supporters there was a chance the game might not go ahead?
Clubs are obviously desperate not to show opponents their hand but this is bigger than that. This is about respect.
We do not have the right to know who has Covid if the individuals do not want us to. But 48 hours before every game, clubs should have to tell us how many players – not players and staff – have tested positive for Covid-19, and how many are due to be in isolation at kick-off.
Update us in 24 hours. More often if you want. Then fans can see what is on the horizon and plan accordingly.
“Some cases across the playing and non-playing staff” – which will be what Byrne was told to say and in keeping with most clubs’ approaches – just does not wash.
It could also give us a clearer picture where foul play is suspected. The Premier League has rejected some applications to call matches off, so we know clubs are trying it on. We knew anyway – they are football clubs.
Games can only be called off because of Covid-19 infections but there is no number on it. Instead, the yardstick is about the number of players available, which is also about injuries and suspensions.
Leeds had to play Arsenal before Christmas despite having 10 players unavailable and no outfield substitutes from their 25-man squad list (which they chose to keep to 17) because only Diego Llorente had Covid. But when “five new positive cases within the first-team squad and staff” followed and the Boxing Day match at Liverpool was postponed – in good time – the balance tipped. So too for the Aston Villa game set for Tuesday, even though Llorente would have been out of isolation by then unless he still had the virus.
But how many of those five cases were players and how many staff? Five players? None? We don’t know. If it was two, is that enough? We don’t know.
A Newcastle United-supporting friend messaged me this week asking if their January signings would be stopped from playing in a game rearranged because of Covid. It seemed obvious to her how others would see a postponement due to “Covid and injuries”.
There are plenty of instances where a team would benefit from delaying a match, so it was hugely to Marcelo Bielsa’s credit when he dismissed suggestions Leeds should have tried to call off the Arsenal game; and to Harrogate Town’s when they took 13 players to Tranmere Rovers just to get a game on – and won.
The problem with taking injuries into account is one man’s injury is another man’s knock that he can play through. Infectious diseases with strictly-defined isolation periods are clear-cut.
Stop paying lip-service to fans and start showing them the respect they deserve.