Robin Sainty: Guilty parties are happy to muddy the football waters

Leeds fans didn't take kindly to Stuart Webber's comments this week Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus I

Leeds fans didn't take kindly to Stuart Webber's comments this week Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

So another week has gone by and we’re still no clearer about the fate of Project Restart, not least because it’s so hard for the average fan to get a handle on what’s really going on.

Chief executive of the PFA, Gordon Taylor - a man with some curious ideas Picture: PA

Chief executive of the PFA, Gordon Taylor - a man with some curious ideas Picture: PA - Credit: PA

So another week has gone by and we’re still no clearer about the fate of Project Restart, not least because it’s so hard for the average fan to get a handle on what’s really going on.

Much of that is down to the continuing policy of the national media to produce sensational, but not necessarily accurate, headlines.

For several days we saw more and more hysterical invective about the “Rebel 6” clubs whose opposition to neutral venues for purely selfish reasons was going to spoil the party for everyone else, only for the Daily Mirror to report that in Monday’s Premier League meeting those clubs were far from alone.

That was confirmed by City’s Sporting Director Stuart Webber, who was involved in the meeting, in a wide ranging and very impressive Sky Sports interview during which he reiterated City’s desire to finish the season if possible, but pointed out that it would be totally unacceptable for Championship sides to be promoted if the Premier League completes its games and the Championship doesn’t.

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This well-argued point was clearly insufficiently inflammatory for the BBC Sport site, which ran a story with the headline “Norwich City say relegation from the Premier League should be scrapped if the top flight completes its season but the Championship doesn’t”, although the Yorkshire Evening Post managed to outdo them in the word twisting stakes by trumpeting “Leeds United should be denied promotion if Championship don’t play says Norwich City sporting director”.

Unfortunately, what all of this sensationalism does is to encourage increasingly bitter disputes amongst fans of the affected clubs, which is both unhealthy and is creating levels of antipathy that could easily lead to flashpoints as and when football in a pre-virus form returns.

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There is undoubtedly a rising tide of anti-City sentiment as a result of this, through no real fault of the club.

Much of this has been generated by fans of Liverpool and Leeds United, the former understandably desperate to confirm the title that their superb form on the pitch clearly deserves, but having to live with the realisation that, through no fault of their own, it will always carry a caveat because of the circumstances.

In the case of Leeds fans, it appears to be a combination of frustration at City outstripping them over the last 10 years or so and a conviction that they are somehow a special case based on the same sense of entitlement that means they still have a terrace song entitled “We are Champions, Champions of Europe” despite the fact that they actually lost the 1975 European Cup final to Bayern Munich.

This is not to suggest that all fans of those clubs are responsible, but in the echo chamber that is social media much of the vilest abuse towards City and their fans seems to originate from one or the other.

While last week was all about the media trying to bully clubs into toeing the party line, this week we have moved onto pure farce with reports of the requirements for a return to training that include respecting social distancing and regular and comprehensive disinfection of everything from corner flags to pitches. Players will not be allowed to work together in groups of more than five and tackling will be banned.

Training sessions will also be limited to 75 minutes, which is hardly a realistic preparation for competitive football.

It gets worse though. In addition to the earlier suggestion from the chief executive of the PFA, Gordon Taylor, that playing shorter halves could somehow be helpful in lessening the risk of infection players are now being told to turn their faces away from each other after a tackle once competitive games begin. Welcome to the world of low-fat football, and as the ideas get more and more bizarre you do start to wonder whether some of football’s administrators have used the lockdown as an opportunity to experiment with LSD.

One refreshing voice of sanity in an increasingly mad world came from John Newsham, a consultant to, and former chairman of, the Football Safety Officers Association who told the Guardian that its members have not been properly consulted on Project Restart, saying: “Nobody’s life should be jeopardised because of money. If a match has to be abandoned or can’t be played due to safety concerns, it is irrelevant that it is due to be broadcast on Sky. It is a worry for me if the TV money is at the back of people’s minds. Lives come first; it has nothing to do with money.”

Clearly some players are also very uncomfortable with being used as human guinea pigs to provide entertainment for the masses, with City’s Todd Cantwell tweeting that “We are just people too” after a third Brighton player tested positive for coronavirus.

Footballers have every right to feel the same fears as the rest of us, and at a time when it’s considered unsafe for MPs to sit close to each other at Westminster it’s palpable madness to try to force them into a full contact sport.

On Thursday, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden announced that “the government is opening the door for competitive football to return safely in June” but took care to sidestep the burden of responsibility by adding that “It is now up to the football authorities to agree and finalise the detail of their plans.”

This was also apparent in his further comment that “the government and our medical experts will continue to offer guidance and support to the game ahead of any final decision which would put these plans into action.” Buck safely passed.

However, the problem is that that guidance will be based on all sorts of conflicting pieces of research that are being produced.

For example, the Mail this week mentioned a Danish study which the Premier League like that suggests that a footballer is only within infectious distance of anyone for an average of 88 seconds a game, yet another study reported by the New York Times which used wind tunnels to analyse how respiratory droplets are dispersed in the wake of someone running concluded that to avoid infection a social distancing radius of between five and 10 metres rather than two would be required.

I have no idea which is more accurate, but more importantly neither do the Premier League, the government, or the media.

Understanding of the virus is very much a work in progress; the only thing that we do know for sure is that it can be deadly and cannot currently be kept at bay by vaccination and in those circumstances there cannot be any moral justification for putting anyone at risk for the sake of a game that can’t even be played in its true form.

Divide up promotion and relegation in whatever way can be agreed upon, or even restart the season later in the year when the infection and death rates are significantly lower, but let’s not put ourselves in a position where we end up mourning a death or deaths that could have been avoided.

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