Mid-season break for football could be remedy to slow spread of coronavirus - Stuart Rayner

On Tuesday, seven out of 12 League One matches were called off because of Covid-19. Doncaster Rovers and Hull City have both been given Christmas off.

BREAK IT UP: Could football benefit from a two-week break from action as the number of Covid-19 cases mirror the ongoing problem around the UK by rising. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Even the mighty Premier League is not immune. England’s top-flight went into the festive period having only lost one match, Newcastle United’s against Aston Villa, to Covid-19. Now Manchester City and Fulham have seen games cancelled, while Sheffield United have also been hit.

The Blades were unable to name a full bench at Burnley.

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There has been a notable jump in the number of positive tests the division has thrown up since early November. The 18 between December 21 and 27 set a new and unwanted record.

BREAK IT UP: West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce, right, says a 'circuit break' should take place across football. Picture: Dave Rogers/PA

The virus and its mutant offspring are on the march. How long can football close its eyes and put its fingers in its ears?

It was last week when Ipswich Town physiotherapist Matt Byard suggested it was perhaps time for the Football League to strongly consider a “circuit breaker”. On Tuesday night, West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce said it should extend to the top division too.

Perhaps now coronavirus is doing its best to bring one in via the back door, we should reluctantly acquiesce.

Manager Paul Warne’s comments before Rotherham United reluctantly played Barnsley in the Championship on Tuesday were alarming. He made clear the Millers were reluctantly fulfilling the fixture for fear of the consequences if they did not.

Sunderland did similar by playing Wimbledon, then postponed their next four League One games. Heaven forbid if an Oakwell outbreak is next.

As so often during this horrible pandemic, the authorities find themselves in an invidious position.

Middlesbrough found out in 1996-97 how problematic it can be calling a match off because of illness. Their postponement because they felt they did not have enough players to take on Blackburn Rovers ultimately cost them relegation from the Premier League amid much bitterness.

The leagues do not want to allow a situation where clubs can call off games lightly – either for an illness other players might play through or a pitch that miraculously got waterlogged just after being hosed – because it suits them.

As Rotherham and Sunderland were told, every Covid-19 call-off prompts an investigation, and rightly so. Everton asked for “full disclosure” of why their game against Manchester City was not played.

But even worse would be to have asymptomatic but infectious players or coaches unwittingly spreading the virus around the country because their club erred on the side of playing for fear of reprisals.

Since Rotherham’s game going ahead was based on medical advice, we should probably accept that, but perhaps the guidelines given to the experts should veer more in favour of keeping players at home when this is a stealthy little virus, capable of sitting there without symptoms.

Nobody really wants to call off games at the moment if they can help it.

Football, even sterile behind-closed-doors football streamed from home over an unreliable Wi-fi connection, is an important safety valve for the mental health of some supporters. So many other areas of joy have been taken away, it is best to keep this show on the road if it is safe to do so, even if these matches are costing the clubs cash they can ill-afford to be without.

The League One table, in particular, is a bit of a mess.

Burton Albion, for example, have played 21 matches this season, whilst other clubs are stuck on 17.

Finances dictate clubs in Leagues One and Two are not forced to go through the rigorous testing regimes used in the Premier League, where the swabs are almost as unrelenting as the matches.

Unlike in the top flight, it is the clubs who pay for testing, so those that go above and beyond the light-touch approach do so at their own cost.

If Tier 4 clubs in particular, are to continue to be allowed to travel around the country, perhaps that needs to change for everyone’s sake. But then again, might that be the final financial nail in some clubs’ coffins?

Better, perhaps, to have an impromptu mid-season break, certainly for the bottom two divisions, perhaps everyone.

There will be financial implications at the top of the pyramid, where lucrative television deals are in place, but health must come before everything.

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