Covid and snow present real threat to completion of season - Stuart Rayner on Football

It was like a domino rally as matches fell to the weather at Friday dinner time.

Snow joke: The FA Cup match at Bramall Lane overcame the weather but many matches have been postponed by it and the pandemic. Picture: Andrew Yates/Sportimage
Snow joke: The FA Cup match at Bramall Lane overcame the weather but many matches have been postponed by it and the pandemic. Picture: Andrew Yates/Sportimage

First, a frozen Harrogate Town pitch put paid to Leyton Orient’s visit, then Sheffield Wednesday’s game against Swansea City went, then Rotherham United versus Queens Park Rangers, and finally Bradford City versus Salford City.

Sod’s Law has dictated that with the fixture list tighter than ever because of the Covid-delayed start to the season and with outbreaks of the virus accounting for matches, we have also been through a cold snap rendering many pitches unplayable.

We are out of it now but who knows when the next spell of freak weather or outbreak of infections will hit? If we leave no room for manoeuvre, the chances are it will.

Doncaster Rovers manager Darren Moore: Warning.

The farce hit a low point at the Stadium of Light on Saturday night, where Doncaster Rovers had been able to play Sunderland because of the former Premier League club’s undersoil heating.

Manager Darren Moore and his players were looking forward to bouncing back from a heavy 4-1 defeat at home to Accrington Stanley.

The problem was, they did not know if they would be playing on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Accrington’s Saturday match at Lincoln City had also gone for a burton but the Imps gambled on temperatures dropping enough to hold the game at 6pm the next day, and got away with it, hence Doncaster played last night.

The fixture list is becoming so congested, clubs can ill-afford a free weekend.

If you follow the principle that league clubs should have at least two clear days between matches – something of a mantra nowadays, and a sensible one given the physical demands on players – and respect the international break, mid-April is the next available slot for the Owls game to be rearranged to.

The one midweek they have free before then, Swansea have rearranged a game into.

Conference North York City have already reached the point where they have more than twice as many outstanding games as available weeks, but the problems at non-league level run deeper than that.

“The EFL are adamant the season will finish on the date set and that’s why the pressure and demands are on clubs,” explained Moore.

Asked if the situation was becoming unfair or unacceptable, he replied: “If at any point one or two more games get called off it will be but I think it’s just about manageable now. Any more and it won’t suffice in terms of the time from now until the end of the season. At the moment, we still have that glimmer of hope.”

Doncaster have 20 games to complete in 11 weeks – then, perhaps, play-offs – Blackpool 21 and League Two Carlisle United 22.

Championship club Rotherham have 18, but will lose a fortnight to March’s international break.

Why not just open a tiny breathing space in the schedule rather than risk being forced into it at the last minute? Answer: No-one wants to budge.

Last week, Uefa told Arsenal to play their Europa League last-32 tie at two neutral grounds because Covid restrictions would cause problems with the Gunners and Benfica going into one another’s countries. Why, in the name of sanity, not just play a one-off tie?

Why not make all the ties involving a neutral leg one-offs, spare those clubs 90 more minutes of football and a lot more international travel, and provide a modicum of leeway to squeeze in outstanding domestic fixtures?

Clubs are being punished by losing home advantage without doing anything wrong.

Why not do as last year and make the final stages a one-country jamboree squeezed into a short time-frame?

It will involve sacrifices, including financial ones, but it happened last season and not only did the world not stop turning, the format was good fun.

There should be enough goodwill on all sides to find a workable solution if the issue is confronted now.

Closer to home, why not ease the pressure on Football League clubs by saying the regular season will be extended by a week, and more if needed down the line? They could compromise too, by making the play-off semi-finals one-legged to free up an extra date.

It just needs a modicum of imagination and a pinch of commonsense.

Ah right, yes, I see the problem now.