Shrewsbury Town have been at the heart of discussion. There were no shortage of fears when it was revealed EFL clubs would receive mandatory Covid testing and those fears have been realised with the news coming out of Sundorne Castle this week, and at Derby County, Middlesbrough, and Sheffield Wednesday, and even Premier League Villa.
To those individuals, as many as 10 in the Shrewsbury camp, we can only wish for a speedy and healthy recovery as the pandemic begins to take a grip on the game again – just as fans were back inside some stadia and we thought steps forward were close.
A trip to Southampton and a tie in front of an empty St Mary’s Stadium, broadcast on national television and with a lucrative sum for the club, has been canned. The game has a brief sign of life ahead in the form of an independent review into its fate. But the prospect of a new date looks slim and, if it comes at the cost of health and safety, the tie should not go ahead.
A televised third round tie at Southampton is a big deal, in times of financial hardship, for the League One club. But even an FA Cup final should not get in the way of health and safety.
Last weekend, a League One fixture was postponed after two positive cases. It felt morally wrong that a Cup tie should go ahead with the virus having ripped through Steve Cotterill’s squad at an alarming rate despite safety protocols.
What chance Southampton wanted to be involved in a Cup tie against lower-league opposition of whom a significant number of players and/or staff had contracted the virus within the last week or so? It would be no surprise at all that the Saints and Ralph Hasenhuttl were not keen to be involved.
Finally though, at least, EFL clubs and players will be tested regularly, twice-weekly after agreed PFA funding. It is outrageous it has taken this long, players deserve much better. But better late than never.
Leadership and clarity from the Football Association on the situation that unfolded this week has left a little to be desired. So far, the lack of a solution has been ominous.
It is difficult to be too critical of the governing body. We are in unprecedented times and this stage of a competition, mixing so many divisions from one nation, not played out in a Covid world before – but the clarity of coronavirus-affected rulings could have been better.
It was unclear, as per competition rules, what the requirements were for a club to not fulfil the fixture.
Reports circulated just days before Shrewsbury’s breakout that revealed clubs should play ties if they have 14 players available. There was no mention of that in the rules.
Then, on the back of Salop’s significant spike, information emerged that competition bodies may consider a postponement and subsequent new date – if it can be agreed between clubs – to give the fixture another chance.
Town’s tie will be decided by a Professional Game Board, who are meeting on Monday and Tuesday next week. The same board met to address Shrews’ application of not fulfilling the fixture.
The fact that, heading into next week – after the initial tie should have taken place – both clubs are still unaware of the outcome strikes as rather painstaking and a bit of a debacle.
It might be painful for Shrewsbury, but if the tie does not fit into the already crammed schedule, with no sign of the spike easing and training grounds shut for 10 days, then they will have to forfeit their place.
That is desperately unfortunate, both from a competitive and financial aspect, but it may be the only option left on the table.
But Salop fans will be right to argue about Derby sending their academy team to Chorley this weekend. Likewise Villa could be forced to field their kids against Liverpool tonight after Bodymoor Heath was shut down with senior players isolating.
It is not known whether Town were asked or considered sending a group of under-18s and academy staff to Premier League opposition. But that would have been a farcical situation. With all players isolating, Shrewsbury said they could not fulfil the tie.
However, the FA must urgently clarify the situation with Derby and, perhaps, Villa, and the likelihood of others, being offered the opportunity to continue in the competition – and not forfeit their place – despite outbreaks.
Shrewsbury may have to take their medicine and the unfortunate luck and timing with this case, but they should not be punished for being a small fish in among the ocean of English football’s elite – and the governing body must ensure it is one, clear rule for all.