It seems bizarre, surreal even, to be considering the return of professional football right now.
As the world reels from the on-going affects of Covid-19, the wide-reaching and devastating impacts of which are still being felt in the UK, it’s with a raised eyebrow Villa should find themselves part of a Premier League machinary, desperate to restart. All whilst the ECDC, which advises the UK, is warning that a second Covid-19 wave is “no longer a distant theory”.
The Villa squad have been pictured today exercising social distancing as part of the resumption of first team training at Bodymoor Heath. The images of solitary players and staff tell their own story; that the risk of Coronavirus has neither abated nor that we can expect scenes representing anything like normality anytime soon.
This is a subject that divides supporters, not just across club lines, but even those within it. For some outsiders looking in, it is simply Villa’s and other relegated threatened clubs’ attempts to avoid the drop. The grown up and learned reason is, of course, that Covid remains a current national and localised threat to the safety and wellbeing of all.
There are a growing number of vocal players who are rightly drawing attention to the risks posed by prematurely and needlessly resuming the 2019/2020 Premier League season.
Troy Deeney, unlikely to be on many Villa supporters’ Christmas card list for his Blues connection and goalscoring exploits against us, understandably cites the need to shield his newborn daughter. Deeney’s daughter has experienced respiratory health problems but the subject of a Covid connected Kawasaki-like disease is something not far from the minds of most parents. Many will be pondering the risks of the government’s dubious decision to resume some schooling in England from the 1st of June too, which is now being met with increasing formal rejection.
As concerning, is Danny Rose’s perception that footballer’s are being used as “lab rats”, a damning indictment of the sports governing bodies apparent disregard for player wellbeing. Rose’s words are easily sensationalised, but an anxiety for the risks to family for the sake of entertainment are both rational and justified.
These are not new concerns from figures within the game, nor are they views or soundbites stoked by recent player consultation. The fear, underpinned by ghastly infection rates and deaths from Covid-19 within the UK, were raised by Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero at the end of April.
Closer to home, Tyrone Mings used his Twitter account to shine light on both the absurdity of government policy, it’s ambiguous interpretation and the means by which the season could be safely resumed. The tone of Ming’s tweets were casual, good humoured but also carried an important message that he was personally far from convinced.
Villa have been generally tight lipped throughout the crisis, with club CEO Christian Purslow appearing both measured and statesmanlike in the Premier League debate and the limited public statements that have been made. This appears to broadly align to the remarks of Watford Chairman and CEO Scott Duxbury, who excellently captured the need to avoid burdening the NHS, whilst balancing having the best interests of his football club at heart.
Purslow certianly will not be oblivious to the peril of Villa succumbing to a relegation, either as a result of a flawed Points Per Game (PPG) outcome, a resumption enforced via neutral venues or whilst competing despite players being at risk of infection or isolating.
With the nonsensical determination to finish the season, as opposed to voiding it, it therefore forces the issue, as observed by Purslow himself, that the league will conceivably resume. The question with no obvious answer is therefore; when?
The Bundesliga resumed last weekend, but for a brand that trades heavily upon a reputation for passionate supporters on its terraces, it suffered badly for their absence. The sight of German ghost stadiums, bereft of atmosphere, was a marketing disaster for an industry so keen to turn the taps on via TV revenue. It was, in short, a TV turn off.
This is then compounded by a hastily arranged testing regime introduced to demonstrate some element of safety if the Premier League were to restart. This immediately served it’s purpose, identifying six positive results from the first batch of staff and players tested. For comparison the Bundesliga reported 10 and Spain’s La Liga 5, with variances in the numbers of those tested reported. Whilst these numbers are challenging to draw conclusions from, football is a contact, close proximity sport which provides the ideal means for infection transmission.
This all boils down to the glaring fact that the key driver has nothing to do with football, it’s purely economic.
Aston Villa, despite our woes on the field in recent years, have traditionally stood up for what is right. Infamously the club and its players refused to give the Nazi salute when told to do so by the English Football Association in 1938. Of course, nobody is perfect. There are also examples where the wrong decisions were taken, with historic child sex abuse allegations and their handling firmly in the spotlight in 2017, for instance.
It’s therefore important that Villa cautiously treads the right path in respect of how to approach the resumption of football, in any form. All this, before it even considers how to safely reintegrate the club’s sole reason for existing: it’s fans.
Finally, I hope that the club does not lose sight of the on-going risks of this devastating virus. There is finally increased testing available, but little realistic prospect of a vaccine in the near future either. It would only take one oversight, innocent or negligent, to result in a grave and avoidable impact upon a family or indeed our wider community through transmission. And all in the name of football, a non-essential entertainment product.
Whilst the UK will be scarred by the true fallout of Covid for many years to come, we dare not risk taking our eye off the effects this has had upon Villa’s local community either.
Birmingham as a region has suffered mightily, with social care settings housing our most vulnerable seeing frightening numbers of fatalities whilst many others in our communities have struggled for food security. There is also the impact of soaring unemployement locally, before the future prospects of many who are presently furloughed can even be accurately predicted.
Like anyone I crave the return of football, but not where the costs so evidently out-weigh the benefits.
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