From High Street footfall to Non-League football, the Coronavirus continues to disrupt our everyday lives.

December 31st marked the second anniversary of the World Health Organisation first being informed about a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, China. Since that time, we’ve locked down, unlocked, only to lockdown for a second and third time. Speculation has surrounded a fourth national lockdown, which may still happen if the NHS is overwhelmed. Yet there are elements within our society, including many politicians at the top table of Government, who believe our future lies not in locking down, but in learning to live with the virus.

Yet learning to live with the virus is something that football, especially the very top of professional football, is struggling to do. The Premier League has had its pandemic the wrong way around. After the first national lockdown caused a brief hiatus, the Premier League restarted on June 17th 2020. Whilst these games were far from normal, played out behind closed doors, squad bubbles were largely unaffected by infection. However, despite the return of fans this season, between December 20th and 26th the Premier League recorded a record 103 new positive Covid cases, causing three topflight fixtures to be postponed on Boxing Day. At the time of writing, the total number of Covid postponements sits at sixteen games, with only Manchester City and Chelsea fulfilling all their scheduled fixtures this season.

Many Premier League Managers have been outspoken in their criticism of the way the Covid postponements have been handled, from Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp fearing the workload his players will be subjected to as a result of the backlog, to Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel’s anger at the League forcing his side to play on despite a number of Covid absentees throughout December. Indeed, the Brentford boss, Thomas Frank, had called on the Premier League to “break the chain” of infection by postponing all fixtures for a week. Yet no such circuit break has been introduced, either by the Prime Minister or the Premier League.

So, if the greatest domestic league in the World is at odds with itself, what hope does the Non-League game have? In the Western League, Covid postponements had been few and far between, until December, where two high profile cancellations have caused controversy on social media. Christmas Eve saw Boxing Day games pulled involving Welton Rovers and Radstock Town and Helston Athletic and Mousehole. Inevitably, Welton’s indifferent recent form was highlighted online as the reason for their postponement, despite the Club stating they had “submitted 16 (and counting) positive PCRs to the League”.

In Cornwall, the fallout from Mousehole’s Covid outbreak was far more acrimonious. Accusations of falsified Covid test results were joined by claims from the Helston Manager that Mousehole had “hoodwinked” the Western League in getting the game called off. Indeed, the League fared little better when they published Covid Guidance on their website, produced by the Football Association, which prompted the Tavistock Assistant Manager to call for the Western League themselves to “provide the data for being double jabbed means you are less likely to spread COVID-19”.

Sadly, the ability of the Coronavirus to drive a wedge between the Non-League football community is nothing new. When the FA Council voted “to conclude the 2019-20 season across Steps 3-7 of the National League System”, on April 8th 2020, it did so in the face of a legal challenge from Leeds based law firm, Walker Morris. A total of 151 Clubs were listed as supporting their submission, of which 106 were from Clubs competing in Steps 3 to 6 of the Non League pyramid, 12% of all sides participating at that level. Of these, 32% were from teams occupying first place in their respective division and 87% were from sides in the top six places. Ultimately, these sides can take comfort from the fact that their efforts may well have contributed to the FA’s decision to resurrect what once was expunged, when they restructured the pyramid at the start of this season. But that doesn’t change the fact that 791 Clubs at Steps 3 to 6 didn’t sign up to the Walker Morris letter.

Expecting Clubs to look beyond their own position in the League table is a lesson the FA learnt the hard way, but at least that nettle appears to have been grasped before a ball had been kicked in July this year, when the FA issued their Covid Contingency Planning Update.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the football family, regardless of whichever level of the pyramid it may reside, is as dysfunctional as any other. Even the Beautiful Game has an ugly side. However, it is disappointing to reflect on the fact that the pandemic has done little, if anything, to bring Clubs closer together in the fight against the real enemy, Covid-19. With our hospitals filling and businesses suffering through lost revenue and staff absences, now is a time for empathy and understanding, not self-interest and incredulity.

Marcus Brody