Fears are growing that English football could be on the verge of grinding to a halt once again amid a fresh Covid crisis.
Sportsmail revealed on Tuesday that Premier League clubs have held informal discussions about holding a fortnight break in the hope the chaos will ease.
The Government have also held talks with football authorities amid the increasing number of cases, after 18 of 1,479 players and staff tested positive just a day after Manchester City‘s visit to Everton on Monday became the second Premier League game to be called off this season due to an outbreak.
Premier League clubs have held informal talks over a fortnight-long break in January
Clubs are increasing their testing of players and staff from once to twice a week from now on after a record daily high of 51,135 further Covid cases, along with 414 deaths, were reported on Tuesday.
After watching his side on the receiving end of a 5-0 battering at home by Leeds, new West Brom boss Sam Allardyce became the first vocal advocate for a fortnight-long circuit break in the Premier League.
He said: ‘Everyone’s safety is more important than anything.
‘When I hear this variant of the virus transmits 70 per cent quicker, we can only do the right thing, which would be to have a circuit breaker.
‘I’m 66 and the last thing I need to do is catch Covid-19. Probably players will overcome it but it’s more difficult for someone like me so so I’m very concerned for myself and football in general.
‘We had one positive case this week. The virus seems to be creeping around no matter how hard we try.
Sam Allardyce believes the Premier League should prioritise safety amid rising covid cases
Gabriel Jesus and Kyle Walker are among five City players and staff who have tested positive
‘If (a circuit-breaker) helps let’s do it and let the season run a little longer when we get through it.’
Allowing two weeks for clubs to bunker down and reduce the spread of infections seems sensible on the surface, with cases rising at a number of clubs.
The five positive cases at City, which include Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus, will not have been included in the latest results.
Fulham’s clash with Tottenham at Wednesday night was cast into doubt following a number of positive tests at Craven Cottage after manager Scott Parker had completed a 10-day self-isolation period after a member of his household tested positive.
Sheffield United’s game against Burnley went ahead as planned on Tuesday, despite the club revealing ‘a number of positive coronavirus tests’ just hours earlier.
Manager Chris Wilder was only able to name seven subs as a result of injuries and positive tests. He said the team had no choice but to ‘work with what we’ve got’ after being forced to leave out Oli McBurnie, Phil Jagielka and Billy Sharp, with ‘four or five’ staff members among the positive tests.
Sheffield United were only able to field seven substitutes in their defeat at Burnley on Tuesday
And Southampton were forced to take on West Ham without manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, who was forced into self-isolation after a member of his household tested positive.
Yet there is little wiggle room for the Premier League. Despite a truncated season due to the late finish of the 2019-20 campaign, few compromises have been made to the calendar. The possibility of another shutdown simply hasn’t been factored in.
The Carabao Cup and FA Cup remain, with only two-legged semi-finals and replays binned. The cup competitions, and the resumption of European competition in mid-February, leave little room for rescheduling postponed fixtures, a situation which has already left Manchester City facing a fixture backlog.
At present the Premier League season finishes just three weeks before the start of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament. A two-week break would, therefore, leave just one week between the end of the English top-flight campaign and the European Championship.
That assumes that the potential hiatus in January will not be needed again before the season’s end.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted his concern at when games would get played if football were forced into a break.
Southampton were without manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, who has been forced to self-isolate
Scott Parker was missing in the dugout for Fulham in their Boxing Day draw with Southampton
‘It’s not something I’ve thought about a lot. I think our players have been really good in following protocols and rules,’ Solskjaer said after United’s 1-0 win over Wolves on Tuesday.
‘That’s part of the job here, that we as clubs follow the protocols given. I can’t see the benefit in having a circuit break, whatever it’s going to be called.
‘Because when are we going to play the games? We all know this year is so difficult, but I don’t think stopping the games is going to make a big, big change.’
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville echoed his former team-mates’s sentiments, after he tweeted: ‘Football has proven through the last 6 months it can operate safely. It was right to be cautious and concerned through the first lockdown when the virus was new and unknown.
‘It shouldn’t stop now in my opinion. This virus isn’t going anywhere in 2-4 weeks!!’
While the Premier League would face fixture chaos with an enforced hiatus, the ramifications of a break in play for Football League clubs could push some over the edge with many in a perilous financial state already.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fears a fixture pile-up if there is an enforced hiatus next month
Though the EFL accepted a £250million bailout offer from the Premier League earlier this month, whether that would be enough to sustain a second suspension is unclear.
Burton Albion chairman Ben Robinson said at the time: ‘As a club we are delighted and very grateful. The Premier League did not have to do this. It should stop the majority of clubs going out of business in the short term.’
A second suspension would raise questions about the mid to long term sustainability of the bailout, and how long the EFL could cope with it and beyond.
There could come a time down the line where they may have to go back and ask for further funds from the Premier League.
As it stands there are no plans to stop elite sport in the UK, but the situation remains fluid. It is unlikely that any decision will be taken lightly.