The new English football season kicks off this weekend with EFL Cup matches – but does a wave of canceled preseason matches suggest another campaign will be disrupted by the coronavius pandemic?
The matches at Bournemouth and Sheffield on Wednesday mark the first competitive domestic matches played without any coronavirus restrictions in place since March 2020.
Covid-19 infections remain high – although they fall – and nationally recording of self-isolation alerts NHS contact tracing has raised fears of a ‘pingemia’ spread to football. Already, a number of pre-season matches have been disrupted or canceled due to outbreaks or concerns about tracing close contacts in recent days.
Manchester United’s friendly at Preston on Saturday is the latest canceled due to positive cases, while Norwich were similarly affected, Arsenal abandoned their pre-season tour of the United States and Newcastle lost three guards to self-isolation for a device.
So, with the season about to begin, is there any potential for chaos?
BBC Sport is examining what changes have been made and why football might be in trouble.
Players at greater risk
Last season, the Professional Footballers Association paid for the players to be tested in the English Football League, at an estimated cost of £ 5million.
This term, there is no obligation to be tested.
It is recognized by all parties that players are at a greater risk of both catching coronavirus or being ‘pinged’ as a close contact than they were last season – as footballers were in strict “elite class” bubbles and had much less interaction with the general public, both in their professional and personal lives.
Now that the restrictions have been lifted for the general public, the leagues are trying to find their way. At present, this means that there is no obligation for clubs to test players.
The EFL has issued guidelines to all of its clubs, both for training and on match days. Under this leadership, there are two sets of protocols, red and green. Most clubs are under Green Protocols, which rely on daily screening to see if any players or staff are showing symptoms. The EFL thinks it’s better than just doing nothing.
Red protocols would be triggered in the event of a local coronavirus epidemic; whether local or national restrictions have been imposed by the government; or if the EFL doctors carrying out spot checks in the clubs discovered that the regulations were not being followed.
The changes to the red protocols would be made by the league after consultation with the clubs and would involve testing.
For Sunday’s EFL Cup match in Hillsborough, BBC Sport understands that Sheffield players on Wednesday will not be tested unless someone reports symptoms.
However, Huddersfield will be.
Terriers believe that the twice weekly lateral flow test is the best way to be aware of any potential issues. Huddersfield, which still receives Premier League parachute payouts, is funding these tests.
Obviously, if clubs don’t test, they can’t be sure how many players, or who, have coronavirus at any given time.
If tests are then carried out for any reason, matches may be called off in the short term.
On July 28, Nottingham Forest was forced to withdraw from the scheduled closed-door match that day with Aston Villa, and Norwich had to put aside plans to host Coventry after tests came back positive.
Forest then withdrew from a game against Burnley, which was scheduled to be played on July 31. Chelsea called off a pre-season match in Dublin hours before kick-off and Arsenal had to withdraw from a tournament in the United States after reporting positive tests.
Premier League testing continues
The Premier League still intends to test twice a week and will publish the results. However, unlike last season, when players had PCR testing, this time they will have lateral flow testing, both to cut costs and speed up the process.
As part of the Premier League plan, the number of players and staff taking these tests will be increased to 100. If one of them comes back positive, then a PCR test will be organized.
The Premier League will also continue to operate red zones for players and seniors.
At least during the first few weeks of the season, clubs will be invited to continue the virtual media conferences established before and after games.
Government fan plan questions
In Hillsborough on Sunday, with a crowd of around 8,000 expected for Wednesday’s first game in front of fans since the pandemic began, there will be no social distancing measures in place in the stands – with the exception of the media area – and supporters will not be required to wear masks.
No proof of vaccination status or previous negative tests will be required.
However, as a club that has averaged over 24,000 in the last season, officials note plans to make this mandatory for stadiums hosting 20,000 or more – which should be tested in the pre-season games at Chelsea and Tottenham next month – and ask how this can realistically be implemented on a busy match day.
After two campaigns played in the shadow of the pandemic, clubs are hoping this season could slowly return to some sort of normalcy being restored.