I’ve had a couple of chats with people over the last 24 hours, and almost all of them have at some point touched upon the fact our lay off could be an advantage in the run-in.
We have players injured, so a week off gives them a chance to recover, does it not? That could work in our favour, right? Wrong, very wrong indeed.
Firstly, who are the key players we have out injured? Liam Bridcutt’s duration is uncertain at the moment and so yes, there could be an advantage of having him back for crucial games, but do not forget these games are not to be played beyond the end of the season, we have to fit them in on otherwise free Tuesdays. Will that be of benefit to a player such as Liam, coming back from injury? I’m not so sure. I suppose we might get Max Sanders back before then as well, but he won’t be a major part of our first team set up until next season now.
Look at our other players – Tom Hopper expected to be out until the end of the season, along with Joe Walsh and Jorge Grant. They might return before the final weekend, but before April 13th when one of the rearranged fixtures is likely to be played? No chance. Will they be match fit by May 4th, the other free Tuesday? Again, unlikely. I guess we might see Jorge Grant back in action by then but without the benefit of training and gentle easing back into the squad. If there is an advantage to be gleaned, it is an increase of games heading into the play-offs, so if we do pull off a top-six finish then maybe Grant is more likely to be fit(ter) for those. It’s a very thin silver lining to a huge great big cloud full of Covid.
Now, look at the negatives. The EPC is likely to be closed until Thursday next week, meaning potentially two days of training before we play Blackpool. That’s not really enough to get the players suffering from Covid back into their stride, is it? We do not know who is suffering, but it is safe to say that if six or seven have it, they’re not going to be 100% for the visit of the Tangerines. My fear is we go into that game without any of the injured players back, and with half a squad still suffering a Covid hangover. On the face of it, Harry Anderson, James Jones and Lewis Montsma all looked to struggle to get back into the rhythm after contracting Covid in the winter, so I doubt very much that the club are rubbing their hands with glee at a promotion six-pointer on the back of two days training with more of the squad recovering from Covid.
Sadly, this could be the blow that actually kills off our season. The disadvantage it gives us in terms of April fixture congestion will test an already stretched squad, and I think if players struggle to recover from Covid within the period allotted, we could be watching a slow descent out of the play-offs by the time we get back on the field. The only advantage in terms of playing later in the month is we will know what we need to do in relation to that final week or so. We could go into midweek games knowing the likes of Gillingham do not have a fixture, so understanding clearly what we need to do to secure our top six spot. That will be new territory for Michael’s squad because he hasn’t had that pressure at all during his tenure. There hasn’t been an MK Dons away, or a Yeovil at home as there was in the years before, so we don’t really know how this squad or the manager reacts in those games where you know exactly what result is needed. It’s a slender advantage though and a flipside to the reality of playing two games a week and the toll it takes on the squad. I said earlier in the season I’d rather have points on the board and I stand by that now.
Could anything more have been done to mitigate the spread of Covid throughout the squad? I’ll go out on a limb and say no, not at all. Before I tell you why I believe that, here is the same sentiment echoed by Derek Ward, Lincolnshire County Council’s director of public health Professor.
“They’ve been exemplary in everything that they’ve done, they’ve followed our advice to the letter, and being very proactive in lots of ways,” he said of the Imps. “But of course, in a professional football club there’s a lot of close contact, it’s a contact sport. Despite putting in place mitigations as advised by the government, we’ve got an ongoing outbreak.
“We’ve been aware of it and supporting the club since the first case, and it’s now got to a stage where my advice is that anybody who tests positive needs to isolate for 10 days, as does their immediate family. But the close contacts of those cases means that the club is struggling, I think, in terms of the number of playing staff they’ve got.”
The expert thinks we’ve been spot on, but what does someone who thinks he is an expert say? I have experienced the Covid match day just once at the ground, back when we played Liverpool in the EFL Cup. It wasn’t an experience at all, not really. I was hugely grateful for the chance to go to the game and watch, but it was as far removed from the actual experience as watching on iFollow. There was no interaction with anyone, you were masked up and had to avoid part of the ground. Protocols were stringent and fully implemented. The same goes for the EPC – I was invited to go down to interview Michael if you recall back at the beginning of the season. If I had a Covid test, I could go in the building, but I couldn’t get one. That meant we conducted the interview outdoors and I never set a foot inside. Footflow, even for those who worked at the ground, was directed away from key areas.
Indeed, Sam and I were scheduled to attend the ground for the Boxing Day win against Burton Albion, but Sam couldn’t at the last minute and so in the spirit of Covid-safety, I too dropped out. We were then scheduled to do the draw against Posh, but the club closed the ground down to all but essential staff. Once again, they reacted quickly to the situation and limited exposure to risk. I do not believe, for one second, the current outbreak is anything to do with the club’s actions.
Remember, Sunderland had a ‘fresh Covid situation‘ recently, which is one potential source, but it could be from anywhere though. I’m not blaming the Black Cats, merely pointing out that Covid spreads and not always due to negligence. Any cold or germs can spread, no matter how safe you are. Right now, as I write this, my partner is in bed coughing and spluttering. She’s had the jab, so it isn’t Covid, and we don’t go out anywhere without masks and hand sanitising. Where has she got it? From the postman delivering our mail? From the eye test we had in Tesco, despite being masked up and everything? Who knows, but she has got something. The same goes for Covid, you can reduce risk, but you cannot get rid completely. In training, players come into contact and once it gets a foothold, it is likely to spread in that environment.
My only hope is that the players and staff affected all recover safely. After that, we can concentrate on football again, but as the country moves towards what feels like ‘the end’, this is a stark reminder that the dangers are still out there.