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John Laverty

A word of advice for those planning to restart football in June: DON'T

John Laverty


 

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Speak no evil: Man City ace Sergio Aguero is against restarting the season

Speak no evil: Man City ace Sergio Aguero is against restarting the season

AFP/Getty Images

Speak no evil: Man City ace Sergio Aguero is against restarting the season

On January 23, our front page story was about the closure of a GP surgery in east Belfast, the latest in a worrying trend.

 

On the back page, meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reported to be clinging onto his job after Manchester United lost at home to Burnley.

In both stories, the word 'crisis' was used.

You could be forgiven for not spotting an item on page 24 of that edition.

Flights out of Wuhan in China had been cancelled due to the outbreak of a mysterious, contagious respiratory virus that had already claimed the lives of 17 people.

This was the first time the word 'coronavirus' had appeared in this newspaper.

Less than four months later, it is one of the most frequently uttered words in the English language - right up there with 'so', 'like' and 'amazing'.

Yes, a rueful smile is permissible when you refer back to what constituted a health or sport 'crisis' in January 2020.

Those were more innocent times.

Perhaps they still are, judging by the catastrophic mistakes made since.

Guys, the late Bill Shankly was being sarcastic when he claimed that football was a more important matter than life and death.

Yet it seems the Premier League bigwigs are harnessing the words of the legendary Liverpool manager as a raison d'etre for their current direction of travel.

It's ironic that "boosting the nation's mental health" has been cited as a premise for bringing back professional football next month, when the 'Project Restart' idea itself is utter madness.

Yes, the neutral stadium proposal works in theory but, in practice, it involves human beings such as Sergio Aguero, who spoke for many when he said the prospect of a speedy return frightened him. Presumably 'Kun' feels it's way too soon to tackle opponents, never mind hug or be hugged by breathless, sweaty team-mates on a pitch sodden with snot and saliva.

And what good would Aguero be in the wall if he insists on standing two metres away from anyone else? Come to think of it, would the offside rule and VAR allow for social distancing?

Mirth aside, Aguero may be fabulously wealthy but he knows that immunity for himself and his family is something no amount of money can buy.

The fever, so to speak, for restarting the 2019-20 season gained traction last week after Premier League suits 'met up' on the back of encouraging words from culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who said he wanted "football up and running as soon as possible".

This is the same Mr Dowden who in early March, along with his colleagues in government, was defending the non-cancellation of Cheltenham and other popular sporting events on the basis of scientific opinion that mass gatherings posed little risk to the public.

It was the FA, along with other sporting bodies, who adopted a 'tail wagging the dog' retort by pulling the plug on March 13, when Boris and his minions were still vacillating over such a seismic decision.

Sport's movers and shakers would be equally wise to ignore Dowden again, especially after his assertion that the return of the Premier League would "help release resources through the rest of the system".

It won't; the lesser leagues will still be left without a paddle up that aptly-named creek.

Anyway, it beggars belief that we're even having this debate when the UK death toll from this terrifying disease is approaching 30,000 - considerably more than France or the Netherlands, who have already suspended all sport until the autumn.

I've read that Premier League players would be tested for coronavirus "two or three times a week". Sorry, but if such resources are available, why would footballers be prioritised ahead of key workers, who don't have the luxury of "two or three times a week" testing?

Another thought: surely medical staff recruited to sit in the dugouts during the 92 remaining fixtures would be better employed elsewhere?

Incidentally, in a previous life I covered a few 'behind closed doors' matches (the legacy of clubs being punished for previous crowd trouble). God, they're dull, lifeless, soulless affairs.

The suits, however, are determined to get them on, and it has nothing to do with fans' wishes or adapting to the 'new normal'.

Collectively, top-flight clubs are staring at a loss of around £1bn, with broadcasters demanding a return on money that has already been shelled out.

United are bracing themselves for a £116m loss - yes, it's definitely time to offload Pogba - and, like all leading clubs with huge contractual and commercial obligations to meet, are desperate for the action to restart.

They all claim they'll heed scientific advice (!) but I, for one, will not be advocating any half-baked square-peg-in-round-hole arrangement when I still have to queue half an hour outside the Eurospar for a pint of milk.

The current league season was due to finish on May 17, with the FA Cup final the following weekend and the Champions League decider seven days after that.

Instead, the suits will have another video conference later this week to mull over their limited options: make the whole shebang null and void, as per the Netherlands, divvy everything up on a 'points per game' basis, a la France, or plough ahead with a restart plan, like Germany.

To quote the memorable words of TS Eliot: "The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

Belfast Telegraph