MARTIN SAMUEL: Football can't be perfect right now… so stop moaning

MARTIN SAMUEL: Football can’t be perfect in a pandemic… Everton and Jose Mourinho need to quit their moaning and play nice. What else are the Premier League supposed to do?

  • There have been a number of Premier League games called off at the last minute
  • But it’s a pandemic – there are considerable complexities to be dealt with now
  • So clubs shouldn’t complain –  everybody is doing absolutely the best they can
  • It’s strange Sam Allardyce doesn’t care much for opportunities for British stars
  • Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta must stand firm over his stance on Mesut Ozil  

Just play nice. That’s what we tell children, isn’t it? That’s what we say when roughhouse turns to tears. Share. Be kind. It’s the same with the Premier League.

Yes, it must be very frustrating to have your game called off at the 11th hour. Yes, it must be very inconvenient. The work has been done, plans and tactics laid down. And there is the worry of fixture congestion further along the line.

But it’s a pandemic. Nobody wanted it. Nobody asked for it. There are considerable complexities to be dealt with right now. Don’t complain. Don’t make a big fuss. Play nice.

Manchester City’s clash at Everton was postponed due to a Covid outbreak within their squad

Everton started this. Furious that Manchester City were allowed to cancel on Boxing Day, angrier still when the club resumed training shortly after, having got the all-clear.

Yet City’s Covid outbreak was no hoax. They were still missing five players at Chelsea on Sunday, including goalkeeper Ederson who was self-isolating.

His understudy’s first act was to pick the ball up from a backpass. It’s fair to assume Pep Guardiola would not be playing that guy just to prove a point.

Jose Mourinho was equally incensed by the cancellation of Tottenham’s fixture with Fulham. He called the Premier League unprofessional. This was before he knew about the 18-strong social gathering organised by his own players over the holiday period. They do that, kids — always showing you up in public.

But let’s consider what exactly was unprofessional. In the middle of a pandemic that has been escalating exponentially to the point of national crisis, the Premier League were contacted by Manchester City and then Fulham to say there was fear of a Covid spread within their secure training camp. Players and staff had symptoms or positive tests, others had been in contact.

Given Government intention is ‘stop the spread’ what exactly was the Premier League to do? Fingers crossed? Take a chance? Merseyside was a Tier 2 area on December 26, Manchester Tier 4. There were going to be fans at Goodison Park.

How irresponsible would it have been to insist the game went ahead as scheduled or, as happens in the divisions below, let the club make the decision, with the threat of sanction if the league investigates and does not agree?

Everton were upset that they were not consulted. Instead, the Premier League went with medical advice. Imagine that. Listening to doctors in a pandemic, rather than a cheesed-off football club with 2,000 tickets to refund, who might just have fancied their chances against Manchester City several men down.

‘Whilst Everton will always have public safety uppermost…’ began a statement that singularly failed to support that point with any contrary medical advice the club had received suggesting the match should be played.

Mourinho was also upset at the timing of the Fulham postponement because Tottenham were close to arriving at the game when the news broke — but safety protocols cannot depend on whether your coach is parked up.

Everton were furious their home clash against City was called off at the last minute

A Covid outbreak is exactly that. It’s random, it’s sudden. Mourinho claimed there were rumours the match could be postponed the day before, but surely we all know the procedures now? The test, the wait for results.

Fulham would have no doubt been hoping the worst had not happened. The Premier League gave them the time to avoid postponement. If the most severe consequence is turning around and heading home, it’s really not a bad old life.

Yet still we hear grumbles, still we hear gripes. There should be procedures, there should be firm lines of guidance. By now, we should know what to do. How exactly when so much is unprecedented? Is that what happens in other industries? This one, for instance.

End of December, newspapers review the year; January starts, they preview it. And on the sports pages that usually involves a calendar detailing the big events and excited speculation of the joys to come. And this year was no different. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, nobody said: Don’t bother.

There were no visionaries, no wizards with grand ideas of how the traditional preview should be redrawn to take into account present circumstances.

Often, on different pages, a breathless look ahead to rugby’s Lions tour would conflict with a news report that revealed serious doubt, as South Africa’s coronavirus numbers peaked with no vaccination programme in sight.

Jose Mourinho was incensed by the cancellation of Tottenham’s clash with Fulham

Olympic anticipation sat beside news that Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike had asked the government to declare a state of emergency after an ‘explosion’ of infections. And that juxtaposition occurred across all titles.

This isn’t intended as criticism. What can you do, except hope for the best? Some of us still have our flights to Tokyo booked for 2021, just as we did in 2020, even when it looked increasingly impossible the Olympics could go ahead. They remained in place right until the moment the Games were postponed, and they will again this year — like those sporting calendars and previews, a monument to hope over expectation. For how else can we do it?

And that’s where the Premier League is. That’s why postponements come late. Stop playing football and they wouldn’t have to worry about cancelling any of it at short notice, but nobody wants that — least of all the clubs, who need the television money and continued commercial exposure to survive.

So it’s not perfect, but how can it be? At least the Premier League are bold enough to make a call, unlike the EFL, who are still too timid to give direction and prefer their clubs to operate independently but in fear of sanction. Incredibly, EFL chairman Rick Parry remains on the three-man FA sub-committee who will consider the merits of postponements to FA Cup ties this week.

So yes, it is far from ideal. Yet this is where we are, and where we will be for the foreseeable future. No roadmap, no precedent, and no torch to light the way. Your coach may need to turn back at the roundabout, your stewards may be stood down at any minute, but rest assured, everybody is doing absolutely the best they can.

So play nice.


As he never ceases to remind us, Sam Allardyce is an English manager. It is one of his favourite lines. If he was called Allardici, he says, he would have landed a top job by now, not these constant rescue missions.

He may have a point. The irony is that, once employed, there are few managers less loyal to English football, and its players, than Allardyce.

Appointed England manager, one of his first moves was to try to recruit Steven Nzonzi, a former France Under 21 international born in the suburbs of Paris to a French mother and Congolese father.

It’s strange that Sam Allardyce doesn’t care so much for opportunities for British players 

Now, at West Bromwich, he is bemoaning the impact Brexit legislation has had on loan targets. ‘I found three players but they are not allowed to come, due to new regulations and permits,’ said Allardyce. ‘It has made things more difficult.’ Yet wasn’t Brexit supposed to usher in a brave new era in which young British talent got its chance? And shouldn’t a coach like Allardyce be precisely the man to facilitate this?

Strange that he cares so much for opportunities for British coaches, not so much for British players. Still at least those West Brom fans who voted Brexit know that if the club is heading for the sunlit uplands of the Championship, it will be salt of the earth Brits who are taking back control.

Although, judging by recent home performances, not of the ball.


Mikel Arteta has turned Arsenal’s fortunes around with three straight wins, leading some to speculate about a return for disaffected players outside the squad. Might even Mesut Ozil find a way back if the dressing room is a happier place, and Arteta’s methods are vindicated? Might he be required to simply toe the line? Do not bet on it. One of Arteta’s issues has been the difficult nature of Arsenal’s group, and he is not about to let dissenters threaten again. 

Casey Stengel, legendary coach of the New York Yankees, summed up the challenge more than half a century ago. ‘The secret of managing,’ he said, ‘is to keep the guys who hate you away from the ones who are still undecided.’

Mikel Arteta must stand firm over his stance on Mesut Ozil after steadying the ship at Arsenal


Karen Carney is absolutely entitled to her opinion. But so are Leeds. Freedom of speech must flow both ways. When Carney said the club’s promotion came ‘because of Covid’, Leeds were perfectly within their rights to dispute that. It was the disproportionate wider reaction and abuse then directed towards Carney on social media that was despicable.

And there is a platform that allows it, and appears to get away scot-free whenever this happens.

What can also be said is that the moment Leeds saw the vile ugliness dispensed in their name, they should have moved to shut it down. Condemn the abusers, support civilised debate, maybe even try to find the worst culprits if they have club membership.

They were too slow to act. Yet those arguing they should have known Carney would be open to sexist abuse also miss the mark. It cannot be that some viewpoints cannot be challenged. That a pundit is above criticism for being female, or black, or in any other way vulnerable. Leeds have a record for robust defences — although not in the actual games — so this was no surprise.

Gabriel Agbonlahor has described Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa as a ‘myth’ in the past, and the club responded by juxtaposing his tweets with a celebration photograph, after their 3-0 win over his former club, Aston Villa.

The wider reaction and abuse on social media towards Karen Carney was despicable

It could be that Agbonlahor then got some nasty attention from Leeds fans. Indeed, given the nature of the beast, it would be surprising if some of it did not cross the line into abuse of a racial nature. Yet we should ask how platforms allow this, rather than question the right to engage.

Leeds may appear very thin-skinned but clubs, or football professionals, can’t just be Aunt Sally for any pundit who wishes to take a swing. They came back at Carney with no more than facts and a wry, chin-scratching emoji. And that is their right.

When Sir Alex Ferguson used to rage at the media in his press conferences, he was entitled, too. We’d had our say, he had his say. And Ferguson was far more confrontational and aggressive than Leeds were to Carney on Twitter.

Mark Clattenburg says he still gets abuse over matches he refereed years ago. Referees get death threats, too.

Sadly, these days, it goes with the territory. And it shouldn’t. That’s the issue. Not more censorship of opinions, on either side of the debate.

Carney, one imagines, does not want to be protected; she just wishes to do her job without a constant barrage of savagery. Sexist abuse, racist abuse, all abuse — there is a responsibility to challenge it, to remove it, to address it.

Instead we have become conditioned to do nothing until some line at the extreme edge is crossed. By then it is far, far too late.


The penalty for breaking Covid rules is a £200 fine. Why then, should footballers lose their livelihoods or face disproportionate sanctions in the workplace for an offence that would not cost the job of any other employee?

It appears every time the Covid crisis peaks, footballers become scapegoats.

Yes, there were some pretty foolish transgressions over the holiday period, made worse by extravagant displays on social media, but it cannot be one rule for the public, another for footballers.

The fine for a full-on rave, or organising a large, maskless protest is £10,000.

Yet there are calls for footballers to be banned, or even sacked. Judging by the reaction to every escalation of tiers and lockdowns, this is not a level of intrusion the public wishes for in their own lives. There was outrage at the thought of police knocking on doors or stopping cars at random over the holiday period. Be careful what you wish for; if footballers can be sacked, so can you. 

Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela, Giovani Lo Celso and Manuel Lanzini were among the Premier League stars to break rules despite Covid-19 restrictions in place over the Christmas period


India are refusing to travel to Brisbane for the fourth Test against Australia in protest at stringent new quarantine regulations. Local rules mean they would be confined to the hotel when not playing or training, and many have been within a biosecure bubble for six months.

Some, however, have not. Five players are now in isolation having been filmed in a Melbourne restaurant on New Year’s Day. Rather trampled on freedom’s cause there, didn’t they? 

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