Jordan Henderson is right about Covid-19 crisis as Premier League must consider change

Something’s got to give at some point...

<p>Jordan Henderson, captain of Liverpool. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)</p>

Jordan Henderson, captain of Liverpool. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

If this Premier League campaign was the beloved, oft-quoted ‘Steamed Hams’ skit from The Simpsons, now would be approximately the time that plumes of thick black smoke come billowing through the crack in Principal Skinner’s kitchen door.

Protest all you like, hastily fashion as many gossamer-thin excuses about Aurora Borealis as you can muster, but the fact of the matter is that something is afoot in the top flight, and ignoring it is not in our collective best interests.

Sign up to our World of Sport newsletter

Last weekend we saw six Premier League matches called off as a consequence of clubs recording positive Covid tests, and with a total of 90 cases in the last round of testing, the sad likelihood is that more will follow - especially given the bottleneck nature of the hectic festive fixture schedule.

And still, the powers-that-be insist that action will continue as normal where possible, with all the chipper obstinacy of the dismembered knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a mouthy head on a limbless torso, spurting blood cartoonishly and insisting that their current predicament is “just a scratch”.

Ultimately though, those who risk paying the price for the Premier League’s blinkered trudge of normalcy are the players and club staff themselves.

Already put upon by a Christmas period so busy that it would have Santa’s elves calling for union representation, the added millstone of a raging Covid surge has left top flight squads battling to keep their proverbial heads above water.

It’s a point Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has addressed with earnestness and eloquence in recent days.

Speaking to BBC Sport, the midfielder said: “I don’t think people can appreciate how intense it is until you actually see it first hand.

“Football to us is everything and we want to be able to perform at the highest level every time we set foot on the pitch. And unfortunately, in this period it is difficult to do that.

“That has been like this for a few years now and it has been difficult but then, on top of that, you chuck in Covid and it becomes even harder and even worse.

“I am concerned that nobody really takes player welfare seriously.

“I think decisions get made - of course we want to play as footballers, we want to get out there and play - but I am worried about player welfare and I don’t think anybody does take that seriously enough, especially in this period, when Covid is here.

“We will try to have conversations in the background and try to have some sort of influence going forward, but at the minute I don’t feel the players get the respect they deserve in terms of having somebody being able to speak for them independently and having the power to say actually this isn’t right for player welfare.”

If the pandemic era has taught us two things - or rather, if there are two things we should have learnt by now - it’s that we have to prioritise health and well-being, both physical and mental, above all else, and that hesitation and reactionary thinking are, in most instances, a recipe for disaster.

Allowing football to plough on unchecked is starting to feel increasingly like a stubborn commitment that could undermine both of those lessons.

It goes without saying that nobody wants to see the Premier League temporarily curtailed again. Even stopping short of that extreme, the eerie, vacuous days of empty stadiums elicit the kind of uneasy shudders and nervous laughter usually reserved for torch-lit discussions of hitherto disbelieved urban legends in slasher B-movies.

It would also be remiss to approach any conversation on postponing top flight action without acknowledging the supportive role football can often play in maintaining many fans’ personal mental health.

But as cases continue to pile up, the reality is that the Premier League need to seriously consider their options here.

Granted, measures have already been put in place to try and combat the spread of the Omicron variant - testing has been ramped up across the division and social distancing is being widely encouraged around training grounds, amongst other things - but the rapid increase in positive cases would suggest that thus far, these efforts have been akin to chucking a Fruit Shoot on a bushfire.

And all the while, the people having to grapple with the ever-decreasing circle of a looming threat are those employed by top flight clubs, and by extension, their loved ones.

It might not be as bad this time - maybe we’ll just graze the iceberg rather than careering headfirst into its midriff - but for the sake of a couple of weeks, until we have a better grasp on just how serious the ramifications of this new variant are, why not bring in a short winter break designed to disrupt the momentum of a problem that is teetering on the brink of unwieldy?

There would have to be caveats, of course. Avoiding Omicron has quickly established itself as the festive extreme sport that none of us asked for. Every trip to Tesco, every venture into town for a roll of wrapping paper, has become a dystopian gauntlet run where the prize for coming out the other side unscathed is a game of charades with the in-laws.

As such, the likelihood is that for any circuit-breaker to be truly effective, it would have to rely on players adhering to a fairly rigid policy of isolation throughout its duration. How realistic that would is another factor that probably falls squarely into the category of “known unknown”, but the alternative is a tense game of Russian roulette, spliced with a highly transmissible virus and lashings of yuletide spirit, all played out in the Petri dish of a dressing room where colleagues are being struck down with all the creeping inevitability of an Agatha Christie novel.

The unfortunate fact is, however, that this is all probably a moot point - and the reason why touches upon the other issue that Henderson alluded to in his interview with the Beeb.

The Premier League will cling on, white-knuckled and mulish, to its original plan for festive scheduling - even as Covid threatens to leave it lying in tatters on the cutting room floor - because there simply isn’t enough time to comfortably catch up on widespread postponements without something, somewhere else giving way.

We’ve already seen it after Tottenham were booted out of the Europa Conference League for failing to fulfil a group stage clash against Rennes, and with the FA Cup riding over the horizon in the new year and the foolhardy behemoth of a winter World Cup to deal with in 12 months’ time, elite professional football has painted itself into something of a corner.

But while organisers, sponsors, and innumerable other faceless entities with vested interests bicker and squabble about how to fit square pegs into pin pricks, it is, once again, the players who shoulder the burden.

The perpetual cycle of 50-game season, major tournament, preseason tour, rinse and repeat, has looked unsustainable for a while, but with the added weight of Covid, things have been made considerably more difficult - as we’re seeing presently.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be having any of these conversations, but we’re not in an ideal world and we haven’t been for the better part of two years now, and all the pandemic has served to do is exacerbate the pressures and time constraints that professional footballers are being put under.

Eventually, they have to be treated with more consideration, and as uncertainty continues to swirl and eddy around the Omicron variant, now would be as good a time as any to start.

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going. You can also sign up to our newsletters and get a curated selection of our best reads to your inbox every day.