Detailed: The path ahead for Portsmouth and rest of EFL with key Covid-19 moment looming
In a godforsaken year in which there’s perpetually been more questions than answers it’s fitting we see off 2020 with such a grim query: how much longer can things go on like this?
Eleven days ago cries of sensationalism greeted The News’ story bringing details of the Covid-19 outbreak at Pompey and what it could mean for the season.
That’s perhaps understandable for those watching from different vantage points who couldn’t quite sense the trepidation from within the walls of Fratton Park, nor the rising fear within the game.
What has unfolded since news of the outbreak at PO4 has surely now given all the context and evidence anyone can need for how justifiable concerns are for where the 2020-21 season is headed.
When the round of testing precipitated by the three positive tests within the Pompey camp showed two further cases of Covid-19, there was a degree of concern about Kenny Jackett’s men losing ground on their promotion rivals
The latest League One action saw the top 11 dumped in the sidings through games postponed amid outbreaks, however, with seven of the 12 scheduled games failing to take place. That figure takes the total to 13 of the 24 fixtures over Christmas.
Those numbers are unequivocal evidence of both the rapidly changing narrative of the impact of the virus in the game and, in all probability, the rate at which the new variant is spreading within it.
The EFL, however, remain confident of the season continuing without the introduction of a circuit-breaker, according to reports. Which feels a bit like saying I’m confident of my chances with Scarlett Johansson. It’s a good thing to say, but it doesn’t necessarily represent reality.
That’s especially the case as the cheery sentiment from the governing body of the 72 league clubs outside the Premier League, arrives in the same report that goes on to say the fixture schedule may not be able to accommodate further cancelled games.
What we have seen over the past 24 hours is a growing view from within the game things can’t continue in the same vein as we’re currently seeing.
We’ve now seen figures within two of the clubs impacted by coronavirus contradict the message from the league, as Rochdale’s doctor last night followed Ipswich’s physio in suggesting the campaign should be stopped.
An assessment of the proliferation of virus within the football would seemingly support that sentiment.
The latest round of Premier League testing revealed 18 positive results - double that seen previously. Those kind of numbers in tandem with Manchester City’s game with Everton being the second top-flight fixture to be postponed as a result of outbreaks, has now prompted discussions among clubs about pausing the top flight for two weeks.
For context, the number of tests which has prompted the private talks is topped by three sides in League One alone, with Sunderland reportedly returning double figures 10 days ago while Pompey and Doncaster have five apiece.
The league’s policy has been to align themselves broadly with the rest of society, with testing for those who’ve come into close contact with a positive case or when personnel within a club are experiencing symptoms.
The argument why should football be treated differently to any other industry is a fair one, but has allowed a policy to be carried out which in all reality hasn’t revealed the true extent of coronavirus at the 72 EFL members.
The sentiment does exist among club executives that carrying out full testing would show its presence to be a lot worse than the picture being painted by the current regime.
So, if no decision is made between now and then, next week threatens to be when the issue comes to a head.
That’s when the next round of mandatory testing covered by top-flight clubs will take place, ahead of the scheduled FA Cup third round date when Premier League sides will meet their EFL or non-league counterparts in 14 ties.
Inevitably, there will be discussions taking place within the game about contingency in the face of a worst-case scenario, as those fateful words curtailment and points-per-game rear their ugly heads again.
That is still a few steps down the line with no votes on the way ahead yet, but with fixture scheduling a significant concern the worries that moment is closer on the horizon than the vaccine start to become more legitimate.
Football, like the rest of society, has its hopes pinned on immunisation as the key weapon for saving the season, but Pompey chief executive Mark Catlin today broached the subject of the moral minefield the game will face in players accessing vaccinations in front of others.
What is certain is pressure is growing from sections of the game for action. When significant figures like Chris Wilder and Sam Allardyce talk about concerns and a lack of appetite for continuing, that’s clear to see. For every Darragh MacAnthony calling to press on there seems to be plenty more urging caution.
Likewise, the thoughts of players is another serious consideration as they move around the country and potentially put themselves at risk. As well as the human element at play, there’s also the legal issue to consider.
This all, of course, arrives at the worst possible time for Jackett’s side as their campaign ground to a halt just as momentum built to a table-topping moment 12 days ago and optimism at a season’s high.
The official line from the leagues is being maintained that things carry on as normal for now, but that message continues to be caveated with the off-the-record briefing things may well change and they could be forced to act.
Ultimately, that decision may be taken out of their hands. Judging from the words of health secretary, Matt Hancock, today, we’re not quite there yet, but even without considering the government’s penchant for an abrupt volte-face it’s clear we’re approaching another Covid crossroads for Pompey and football.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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