Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Premier League football is back but is it safe and what does that mean for everyone else?

Posted on 23 June 2020 by Hal Fish

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As normality edges tentatively closer, football has forced its way to the front of the queue. The Premier League has returned after a lengthy hiatus, but plenty of questions remain to be answered.

Dr Parag Pandya works at the Swanscombe Health Centre near Dartford. He is also the team doctor at National League club Bromley F.C.

He has likened working for the NHS during the Coronavirus outbreak to being a soldier. But perhaps that undersells it. Out of the warzone, a soldier has safety. It’s not that simple for the health care professionals fighting against COVID-19; they run the risk of carrying the virus back to their families. 

There is palpable frustration when Dr Pandya talks about the impact of the pandemic. He speaks of a lack of preparedness and inadequate provisions across all health care services.

“We have about 12 care homes that we look after. And it was the hardest thing because there wasn’t any COVID testing. There wasn’t enough PPE available to the care staff in the care homes. There wasn’t enough resources for us to feel safe,” he explained.

However, it seems the worst may have passed. Indeed, Dr Pandya does not predict a second wave. And for better or for worse, football is back.

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Much has been made over the physical safety of the footballers, but Dr Pandya predicts another obstacle which must be carefully managed: the mental health of players.

“A huge amount of mental stress and uncertainty is going through people’s heads. And the human brain is such, you can’t park this or leave it at home while you’re playing the game.

“To look after their emotional and mental health is going to be the key thing and the bigger challenge for the medics like me and the management team.

“If it is handled well by the management and the clubs, I think those clubs will fare well compared to others who do not give enough importance to the mental and emotional well-being of the professional footballers.”

There have also been concerns that the return to football may be more dangerous for some ethnic groups compared to others.  A disproportionate amount of COVID-19 related death in black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities across the UK has rightly led to questions being asked about the safety of certain players and their families.

However, Dr Pandya suggested that this would likely not be a problem seen in football. He explained that the issues in the UK may be independent to the nation due to socioeconomic factors.

“All the professional footballers, and at present we are only talking about the professional sports person, they do not fall into a socioeconomically deprived category.

“And the clubs we are talking about in the first phase of reopening can afford to reduce the hazards compared to any other lower category clubs. So I think the risk that both the groups are subjected to would pretty much be the same.”

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For many though, the return of football has still come too soon. The virus is spread by contact, so bringing back a contact sport doesn’t sound like a great idea.

The Bromley team doctor outlined how the virus is primarily transmitted by droplets, which may come from a sneeze or a cough.

“The larger droplets may also sit on the surface and if I touch them with my hand and then touch my nose, ears, eyes, that’s how the infection spreads. There is not much evidence of airborne droplets causing infection at present. At the moment we are just assuming the droplets are released when people come in contact. Hence the social distancing rules.”

However, having spoken to friends and contacts who work with the Premier League, Dr Pandya has been impressed with the precautions put in place to get England’s top division up and running.

“I think I have to applaud the FA, and the PFA, and the government to put this in place. I am quite impressed actually.

“People who have been in the UK will be tested pre-training and pre-games. They are going to have testing every week, in fact twice a week.”

He explained there will also be a screening questionnaire for players to fill out prior to coming to the ground, as well as checks upon arrival. They’ll be wearing their kits from home, they won’t be offered any food, and they’ll leave facilities as soon as the game finishes in their own vehicles ­­­­– all parked three metres apart.

“In the whole stadium there will be less than 300 people, including the support staff, medics, media, referees and all those things. Also there has been provision to disinfect the pitch, the ball, the flags, safety cones.”

He continued, explaining that all clubs are subject to unannounced inspections from the authorities.

“It is in the interests of the clubs to maintain all the rules and regulations. To keep themselves safe, to keep their staff safe, to keep their players safe, and because they also have a duty of care.”

This is all well and good at the top of the pyramid, but what about the leagues lower down where clubs like Bromley play? Dr Pandya explained how that is more complicated.

“All the stuff that has been put in for the Premier League is not possible to be put in at grassroots level football.

“You also need to consider a few other things. The revenue is very important for a club like Bromley F.C. Because they are in the National League, the earnings come from the spectators coming to the game.

“When you have a staff that is furloughed and you have no income coming in, it is difficult to consider starting anything.

“The amount of resources the Premier League clubs have to put things right, National League clubs may not be able to do that. I think we are several weeks, if not months, for it to resume, even behind closed doors.”

For all the positivity seen with the return of football at the higher divisions, plenty of uncertainty still hangs over the heads of clubs lower down the leagues. The landscape of English football has been changed, will it ever be the same again?