By Jack Bantock, CNN
It’s a commonly held view that football is nothing without fans, but as the Premier League enters the traditional hectic Christmas and New Year period, supporters of the 20 top-flight clubs are left with the dilemma of whether to keep cheering on their teams in packed stadiums against the backdrop of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Around 1.4 million people in the United Kingdom were estimated to have contracted Covid-19 in the week ending December 16, the Office for National Statistics said Thursday.
Against that uptick in positive cases, the Premier League said earlier this week that fixtures over the festive period will go ahead as planned despite a number of clubs experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks among players and staff. It is likely approximately over 250,000 fans will be watching Premier League matches on Boxing Day.
The decision to play on was made following a virtual meeting of all 20 clubs and the league on Monday, convened to discuss testing measures and postponement guidance in light of surging case numbers.
CNN has been told that clubs will be expected to play games as long as they have 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper available for selection.
Those guidelines have been in place from the outset of the 2021-22 campaign — as per Appendix 17 of the Premier League handbook, which states that “permission will not be granted to postpone a League Match where the applicant Club has 14 or more Players listed on its Squad List available.”
Each team had been set to play three times between 26 December and 3 January in what is traditionally the busiest period of fixtures in the domestic league calendar, though three Boxing Day fixtures have been postponed in the last 48 hours due to Covid 19 issues at Watford, Leeds United and Everton.
All three sides faced away fixtures — at Wolves, Liverpool and Burnley respectively — on Sunday, Dec. 26, and the league said they understood the “frustrations” of these supporters being unable to watch their teams at “a special time of the year.”
The picture is further complicated by Premier League vaccination rates.
The league says 77% of its players are currently vaccinated with two doses, which is considered fully vaccinated under current government guidance, though scientists have underlined the importance of a third booster jab in successfully combating Omicron.
The vaccination rate in England for 25-29 year-olds is 78.5% — the average age of a Premier League player is 26.9 years-old.
The league said 84% of players are currently on the “vaccination journey,” having to wait the required time between jabs.
‘We are disappointed, we are a bit angry’
On Monday the Premier League announced 90 positive Covid-19 cases among players and staff in a seven-day period — the highest number recorded since the start of the pandemic and over double the previous week’s record-setting 42 positive tests.
That meant for the majority of Premier League fans, last weekend passed without the routine activity of watching their team in action — just four Premier League stadiums opened their doors to spectators.
Should Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel have had his way, it would have been three.
However Chelsea’s request to have their fixture at Wolves postponed was denied on Sunday.
Missing a multitude of key players and only able to name four outfield substitutes, the Blues limped to a 0-0 draw, leaving Tuchel to lament the rejection of the club’s request.
“I am worried from a medical point of view,” Tuchel told reporters before the game. “We have had four days of consecutive positive tests.
“How will it stop if we are in a bus together and in meetings together? We are disappointed, we are a bit angry.”
CNN has learned that each postponement request is assessed on a case-by-case basis by the Premier League Board, who consider a number of factors — such as suspensions, injuries, and illness — before reaching a decision.
Chelsea’s request for rescheduling did not meet the criteria and was subsequently denied — though they are not the only club to have had such a request turned down.
And while other teams have suffered postponements, Chelsea, along with Manchester City, Newcastle United and Arsenal have played on.
Chelsea has now played 18 games, but Tottenham Hotspur have managed to complete just 15 matches, giving the league table something disjointed look.
A number of Chelsea fans that CNN has spoken with in recent days matched their manager in expressing bewilderment at how the scheduling of games was being handled.
Having navigated the first leg of his 286 mile round-trip from Stamford Bridge to Molineux Stadium, Teruhito Komatsu arrived in Wolverhampton on the morning of the game without knowing whether the match would even go ahead.
Should Chelsea’s request for postponement been granted, Komatsu would have joined thousands of fans forced to stomach the subsequent economic and logistical cost of wasted travel, let alone miss out on watching his team.
A day prior, fans of Aston Villa and Burnley endured that worst case scenario, as Saturday’s game at Villa Park was postponed mere hours before kickoff following additional positive tests in the home squad.
Should Burnley fans have traveled door to door, the game’s cancellation would have squandered a 235 mile round trip.
CNN has learned that decisions to postpone games are made as swiftly as possible once requests are submitted, but the earliness with which such announcements can be made are constrained by the time limits of testing results — with situations changing as late as the morning of matches.
New, more stringent guidelines on daily testing at clubs should quicken monitoring and subsequent decision-making on postponements, as the league aims to conduct PCR tests the morning before matchdays in order to have results by the evening.
Thursday’s announcement of the postponement of those two Boxing Day fixtures — three days in advance — would suggest such measures are working as intended.
On Monday, the Welsh government announced that — due to a surge in cases of the Omicron variant — all sporting events in the country will be played behind closed doors from December 26. In Scotland all outdoor events in the country will be limited to 500 spectators from December 26 for “up to three weeks,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday.
By contrast the Premier League has reaffirmed matchday Covid-19 measures that have been familiar to many attending fans since the beginning of the season — showing a valid NHS Covid pass or proof of a negative test in the last 48 hours upon entry, and wearing face coverings in unseated areas around the stadium.
An additional condition, as of December 15, sees fans over the age of 18 required to complete a Covid status self-declaration via their club’s website in advance of the game, but the overall guidance is effectively in line with how operations have been run all season.
Whilst concerns regarding clarity over scheduling can be chalked up to a recent case surge, fans told CNN that contradictions surrounding matchday protocols have long predated the Omicron variant.
“Entry into stadiums has been very inconsistent,” said Manchester United fan Rohan Malhotra.
“Some stadiums check your Covid vaccination status without informing us prior to have this ready, whereas at some stadiums we have been told to have our vaccine passports to hand to be checked and we then don’t get asked to show them.”
Several fans spoke to the perceived “relaxed” enforcement of checks on matchday.
“Originally, nothing really changed,” Chelsea fan Tom Masters said of the return to full-capacity stadiums this season.
“It was so nice to be back and the one difference was the — not particularly tight — Covid pass checks.”
The benefit from a fan perspective is that for some, this season has quelled fears that the pandemic would quash the matchday fan experience, with Komatsu saying that — barring the Covid pass — he doesn’t see any “major differences” between current games and those before the lockdown of March 2020.
“We can drink in the concourse normally and we can sing normally during games as masks are not required when eating, drinking, and being seated,” Komatsu said.
“The situation outside of football grounds is also the same. Many fans go to packed pubs and sing loudly just like we used to before lockdown.”
For others though the pandemic has had a more noticeable impact on their matchday routine, with chair of the Chelsea Supporter’s Group Peter Trenter — typically at heart of terrace chatter on the upper tier of Stamford Bridge’s Shed End — revealing that he socializes far less as he maintains close adherence to covid measures.
Yet as it stands, — given the league’s alignment with national government and public health guidelines — fans will have the option to follow their teams across the Christmas period, potentially contradicting the advice of one NHS official.
The NHS’s Director of Primary Care, Dr Nikki Kanani, told reporters last week that fans should prioritize getting their booster “rather than going to watch a match.”
For Komatsu — having received his booster at Stamford Bridge’s pop-up vaccination centre last week — Kanani’s comments were unfair.
“I think we should get boosted … to protect our clubs, communities, families and friends,” Komatsu said. “However, I am not too sure why the NHS director needed to mention football.
“We can go to a vaccine centre on non-matchdays. Maybe the director could have said people who do not book their booster jab soon should prioritize getting their booster over doing other things.
“There must be many non-football fans who do not prioritize their booster and are choosing to do something else.”
As Premier League managers anxiously await the fitness results of their players and attempt to organize Covid-depleted squads, they can take solace in the knowledge that fans look set to face an equally uncertain Christmas period following their teams.
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