Coronavirus crisis: The inside story of how drama unfolded at Portsmouth

The call came from Arsenal managing director Vinai Venkatesham ahead of the news breaking which would have a seismic impact on English football, and ultimately bring the game on these shores to a standstill.

Saturday, 14th March 2020, 10:39 am
Updated Saturday, 14th March 2020, 11:20 am

Pompey chief executive Mark Catlin was the man on the other end of the line as the information was relayed Gunners boss Mikel Arteta had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.

It was a conversation to set off a chain reaction which would see news confirmed a little over 12 hours later elite English football was suspended until April 3.

And Portsmouth Football Club was at the heart of a story which would resonate around the world.

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Of course, it was the FA Cup clash with Kenny Jackett’s men at Fratton Park on March 2 which would prove so significant in the narrative, ahead of the coronavirus spreading across Europe and growing into the pandemic and worldwide health crisis we today face.

The steps began to be counted back to Pompey on Tuesday night, after Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis - whose side had met the Londoners in the Europa League - contracted the virus leading to Arsenal players self-isolating.

Ultimately, that may not have been how the virus was transmitted to Arteta, but the fact was he was carrying a highly-infectious airborne disease. He’d also shaken the hands of Kenny Jackett and virtually every Pompey player. The Spaniard had also come into close contact with staff and media along with his team at Fratton Park.

Pompey chief executive Mark Catlin. Picture: Joe Pepler

A few hours before the game-changing call between the clubs’ executive members, Kenny Jackett and James Bolton had addressed the few assembled local media at the club’s training base in Hilsea.

Jackett confirmed none of his players were showing any symptoms of the virus and Bolton spoke sensibly of how developments were being received in the Pompey dressing room, with the expectation at that stage games would be played behind closed doors.

From there, the government’s stance briefly opened the way to today’s scheduled clash with Accrington taking place. A few hours’ later, the hurtling developments and growth of the coronavirus had taken it into the highest echelons of English football.

It was clear things would not remain the same - and this was the moment Catlin was called upon to step up.

Pompey chief executive Mark Catlin

‘I’ve been in touch with our own Cobra team,’ said Jackett on Thursday, in a light-hearted moment before things escalated. The next morning Catlin was alongside the Pompey boss, earnestly addressing the players before sending them home from the training ground.

Before that, Accrington owner Andy Holt was involved in early-morning talks with Catlin, with the decision made their League One fixture could not take place. It was when the EFL was informed of those discussions it became apparent the game as a whole was about to take measures which would supersede their call.

Accrington had briefly jumped the gun by publishing a statement saying the game was off, but then came the 11am release from the league with the Premier League following suit shortly after.

By that time, Pompey’s players were back at their respective homes as a result of the advice collected by Catlin from discussions with medical experts, Pompey’s own medical staff and talks with the board of directors and management team.

There were general informal chats about the way forward for the season among playing staff, which were largely echoed by Catlin when he spoke to The News early in the afternoon at the end of a frenetic 16-hour period.

Employees at Fratton Park had been briefed by this stage, with plans now to test players when their period of relative isolation (the advice being to stay away from large groups of people) comes to a close on Monday. That will be 14 days on from the Arsenal game and in line with government advice on the measures to take after coming into contact with a person who’s contracted Covid-19.

Then, if no one tests positive, the hope is a degree of normality will be able to return to the club’s Roko base and training will be able to continue amid the suspension which covers four Pompey games - but not currently the Trophy final with Salford City on April 5.

Whatever unfolds from this point, Catlin, along with the key players at PO4 deserve credit for their leadership, clarity and calm amid Pompey’s central role in an unprecedented crisis.

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But.similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Should I avoid public places?

Most people who feel well can continue to go to work, school and public places and should only stay at home and self isolate if advised by a medical professional or the coronavirus service.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS