Leicester City‘s James Maddison has taken on the responsibility of easing the pressure on football and the Premier League with a choreographed, socially distanced celebration after a fine goal against Southampton.
The controversy surrounding players flouting Covid rules last week resulted in increasing calls for the game to be suspended as the new variant of the coronavirus continues to rip through the country.
And while there were hugs and cuddles in this weekend’s round of fixtures, Maddison did more than anyone to show that players and clubs are trying to comply with the protocols laid down by Premier League officials, under huge pressure from government.
Leicester’s James Maddison created a socially distanced celebration after scoring
Maddison ushered away team mates and high-fived and shook hands from three feet
The Foxes’ master technician turned neatly on to a pass into the penalty area, showed excellent close control before rifling a shot into the roof of the net, but as he wheeled away in delight, Maddison had the presence of mind to usher his team mates away.
He then proceeded to perform an exaggerated handshake three feet from the Leicester players who had run over to celebrate the opening goal in an accomplished 2-0 win over Southampton.
‘The gaffer [Brendan Rodgers] mentioned it,’ Maddison told BBC Sport. ‘We got told in a meeting that we might have to do that to keep football going, that’s what we all want.
Manchester City’s players showed great restraint in their celebrations after scoring four
‘Football is keeping us going in these tough times. It was a light-hearted idea, someone’s got to start it, eh?’
MOTD presenter and ex Leicester City striker Gary Lineker praised the player on air and afterwards.
‘Great finish from Madders and a social distancing celebration,’ Lineker wrote on Twitter.
Maddison’s efforts were the high point in a weekend in which goal celebrations and huddles were still in evidence, despite ministers making it clear they are as concerned by the ‘optics’ of players hugging, as they are by the science and the increased risk of transmission.
Last week, deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam said he wanted players to distance and his view was amplified by many health experts who criticised players for increasing the risk of spread and setting a bad example.
But the emotion got the better of some, wiith West Brom celebrating after beating Wolves
MPs waded in too, with Julian Knight, chairman of the Department of Culture Media and Sport Committee describing some of the exuberant celebrations as ‘brainless’.
And some, including respected former FA chairman David Bernstein have concluded it’s time for football to be suspended.
But ministers will have been encouraged by what they have seen in the last week.
Government is understood to be happy with the Premier League and EFL response to demands to tighten up on player behaviour. And sources said they had seen ‘signs of progress’ this weekend, but the football authorities need to keep working with clubs and players to keep pushing the message.
There were other classy performances as well as Maddison as players try to keep the show on the road.
A second candidate for distanced celebration of the week was West Ham’s Michail Antonio, who performed a curious backstroke routine after his tap in to beat Burnley. His efforts were slightly diluted when team mates Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Jarrod Bowen piled in, but top marks for effort.
West Ham’s Michail Antonio unveiled a socially distanced back-stroke celebration
Covid rule breaches on and off the pitch have led to calls for football – and by extension elite sport – to be suspended while the new variant of the virus keeps infection rates high.
This weekend was a critical moment after pressure from ministers led the Premier League to tighten its Covid protocols and speak to executives, managers and players about the need to respect social distancing at a time of national lockdown to preserve elite sport’s special status and allow it continue.
Managers have openly questioned whether players could avoid a cuddle in the moment of joy that comes with scoring a goal.
Kevin de Bruyne breaks up a huddle after City’s Ilkay Gundogan scored a great goal
One of them was Pep Guardiola, but his Manchester City side showed admirable restraint in their 4-0 win over Crystal Palace.
John Stones’ first goal was marked with a couple of quick hugs and some high fives, while Ilkay Gundogan’s wonder strike looked like it could spark a pile on, but Kevin de Bruyne intervened and kept the players apart.
The other goals were greeted with modest celebration, too. Premier League officials very pleased with captain Ferdandinho’s influence on his players. The skipper took part in Premier League briefings last week.
A five-man embrace developed around Fabio Silva after scoring for Wolves against West Brom
Inevitably, there were moments when emotion overtook the players.
When Serge Aurier powered in a header for Spurs after just five minutes Steven Bergwijn, Son Heung-min, Joe Rodon, Eric Dier, Ben Davies and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg joined in a seven-man embrace.
Harry Kane was jumped on by Serge Aurier after he scored from outside the penalty area, but the England captain, who has been an advocate of distancing, managed to restore order and finished with a few high fives.
Wolves have persisted with a pre-match huddle despite the the Premier League’s rules
And Wolves’ young striker Fabio Silva was at the centre of a five-man hug with Pedro Neto, Willy Boly, João Moutinho and Rúben Neves. when he scored an equalizer against West Brom in the Black Country derby. Wolves went on to lose 3-2.
Perhaps, the hardest huddle to understand is the pre-match embrace.
Sheffield United celebrated their goal against Spurs in a socially distant way, but have persisted with their morale raising hug, as have Wolves, before games even though they appear to be in breach of the Premier League’s edict, which says avoid ‘unnecessary contact at all times’ .
Sheffield United also go into a huddle including before their game against Tottenham Hotspur
The Premier League says that the clubs should investigate and sanction ‘individual transgressions by relevant persons’.
It’s guidance adds: ‘Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action by the league individually against the relevant person, where appropriate, and/or against the club.’
However, the league recognises that it will take time for habits and behaviours to change and overall, officials saw progress in matches this weekend, although they are mindful the games come thick and fast and there could yet be more incidents.
North of the border, Celtic have been forced to abandon their pre-match huddle due to Covid.
Celtic have adopted a socially-distanced huddle before matches due to Covid
Vice-captain Callum McGregor revealed the team had been asked to socially distance ahead of their game against Hibs, which finished 1-0.
He said: “The club decided not to do the normal huddle last Monday, given the spotlight that was on us at that time. Our Covid guy and the head physio Tim Williamson asked us not to do that.
“We just try to show and do the right thing as much as possible.
“But the huddle is symbolic in terms of Celtic, so we want to keep that going, even if we can’t do it properly.’
Lst week, regular testing revealed 36 new cases of coronavirus among Premier League staff and players.