MARTIN SAMUEL: Kill the joy explosion and we may as well stop playing

MARTIN SAMUEL: Football is now being held to ransom over goal celebrations but kill the joy explosion and we may as well stop playing… if that moment is gone, well, what’s the point of it?

  • Players have been advised on new protocol to socially distance in celebrations
  • Many seem to lose sight of the rules as they embrace team-mates after scoring
  • Footballers are among the most tested individuals for Covid-19 in the country 
  • Players celebrating together is not a green light for the public to break rules 

Nobody learns, nobody grows, nobody hugs. If grandstanding politicians such as Julian Knight and his DCMS committee had their way, this season’s Premier League would play out like Larry David’s blueprint for his hit show, Seinfeld.

Minus the laughs, of course.Football is now being held to ransom over goal celebrations. The season will be suspended if players continue to eschew social distancing in moments of elation.

The Government knows the game faces a financial catastrophe if the season is cancelled, so dangles this threat. They didn’t have the brains to devise an effective method of distribution for when a vaccine was finally available, but somehow they’ve got time for this.

 Explosions of joy are what keep football normal as it operates without fans in the pandemic

Despite being urged not to, players are still celebrating with hugs, high-fives and handshakes

As if the most tested people in the country are responsible for the spread. As if the public cannot be expected to distinguish between their circumstances and those of young, fit men, tested weekly and working in secure, sanitised environments.

Get over it.

Paul Pogba signalling for team-mates to join him, after sending Manchester United top of the table, is not the green light for you to hold an illegal rave in your auntie’s garage.

You know what’s right and wrong. You know that football has been made a special case. And you know what makes it special, too.

Moments. Chorley’s victory over Derby, Sheffield United’s first win of the season, Fulham’s late equaliser at Tottenham.

Nobody is watching football for a cold 90 minutes of tactical numbness, a contractual obligation to broadcasters and another fixture struck soullessly from the list. ‘In a clash that is going to go down in history as one of the many football matches that are happening this weekend,’ as David Mitchell had it.

The reason footballers are being tested, are eating prepped meals from cardboard containers while sitting in isolation at the canteen, the reason so much effort is being put into creating sterile bubbles, is to keep the 90 minutes as normal as possible, without fans.

The game you watch must still look like a game, feel like a game, contain those splendid explosions of joy, despair and release. For if that moment is gone, well, what’s the point of it?

So, in the final minute at Anfield on Sunday, if a winning goal is scored at either end, the least natural reaction, the one that would make the spectacle close to unwatchable, would be the thumbs-up, the polite nod, or a dutiful return to starting position for kick-off.

If the last remnant of humanity is to be removed, why bother at all? A goal celebration within reason — no 11-man pyramids — is not, as the Labour MP Clive Efford had it, an ‘insult to NHS staff’. An insult to NHS staff would be the cheer that went up from the Conservative benches when pay rises for public sector staff were voted down in 2017 by, among others, Efford’s DCMS colleague Julian Knight.

Maybe another insult would be the letter Knight sent back to a nurse who was exhausted and struggling financially in 2018, recommending Citizens Advice or the Money Advice Service to help her budget properly.

Knight stopped short of recommending his own book on tax avoidance, one presumes because that stuff isn’t really aimed at poor people. Poor people struggle to avoid tax. It’s what keeps them poor. 

 Goals are special moments and for teams like Chorley in the FA Cup they should be celebrated

Sadly, hugging has allowed Knight and his cronies to mosey up to the moral high ground and deliver another lecture. Yet hugging isn’t a New Year’s Eve party. It isn’t even Eberechi Eze of Crystal Palace breaching lockdown rules by going to watch his old club Queens Park Rangers.

A party, a visit, takes planning. A goal is an instant of unbridled elation. And when that happens, some will remember our present circumstances, others not. That is the nature of the event and of people.

Wayne Rooney described scoring a goal as like coming up for air, having been trapped underwater. The cliche quote is that it’s better than sex, although Gary Lineker provides context.

‘Everyone can have sex,’ he said, ‘but not everyone can score an important goal.’

Glenn Murray, still playing for Watford at the age of 37, described it as the best emotion in the world. ‘When a goal comes, I can’t give that feeling to anyone,’ he explained. ‘Only I can know it. I want my children, my wife, the people close to me to have that feeling, too. But they can’t.’

It sounds intense. And the bigger the match, or the personal circumstances, the more chance there is of an individual becoming lost in his moment. Even an old soul like Roy Hodgson understands this. ‘You can say there is no excuse for celebrating the goal but it’s one thing to agree with the principle and another to stop it happening,’ he said.

‘When it happens, it’s difficult to push emotions aside, put your Covid head on and ask, “How far apart are you?” The general public should remember that all these players have been tested three times and all are coronavirus negative.’

Southampton striker Danny Ings (middle) was potentially contagious during a recent match 

Of course, that’s a grey area, too. Southampton now believe Danny Ings may have been positive when he played, scored and celebrated with team-mates against Liverpool. Yet no further players have recorded positive tests and there is zero evidence of the virus being transmitted in competitive games.

So what we are responding to is the ‘optics’. How this looks to a society in lockdown. And if that is the case, maybe we also need to look at ourselves.

For if you are still blaming something Dominic Cummings did on March 27 for decisions you are making today, it’s not him, it’s you.

And if you are behaving like a professional footballer who has just scored a winning goal having previously tested negative three times in seven days, even though you are not a footballer, haven’t scored and haven’t been tested as much as once, again, it isn’t the footballer who is the problem.

In fact, very little of this is football’s fault. And the sooner we stop falling for red herrings and realise this, the more chance we’ve got. 

RUGBY TACKLES ABUSE OF REFS 

Kyle Sinckler was unimpressed with the decision-making of referee Karl Dickson in a match between Bristol and Exeter.

‘Are you f****** serious?’ he asked. As a result, Sinckler has been banned for two weeks and will miss England’s first match of the 2021 Six Nations, against Scotland.

Football often wonders how it can tackle the growing problem of abuse directed at match officials. Like that.

Kyle Sinckler (R) has been banned for two weeks after abusing a referee during a Bristol match

INSPIRING JONES IS THE OPPOSITE OF OUR TENNIS ALSO-RANS

There is no more tiresome trope in tennis than the plucky Brit. Out in round one of every Grand Slam tournament, but fighting gamely towards that inevitable defeat. Obviously, we can make an exception for 20-year-old Fran Jones.

Whatever fate has in store for her at the Australian Open next month, Jones is a hero. Born with ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia, Jones has six fingers, seven toes, small hands and is particularly vulnerable to injury. She uses a lighter racket than her rivals, and has to work harder in the gym to overcome her disadvantages.

And she has made it to Melbourne, winning her final qualifier against Jia-Jing Lu of China 6-0, 6-1. Jones is now inside the world’s top 250, too.

And, yes, it might be argued her progress just to here is an achievement. She won’t see it that way, though — which is probably why she’s got there.

A remarkable woman.

Francesca Jones, 20, has qualified for the Australian Open and has risen inside the top 250 

DON’T CUT THE SEASON SHORT 

Premier League clubs are to agree a threshold for the award of titles, European spots and the calamity of relegation in the event the season is curtailed.

Points per game would then be invoked and places fixed accordingly. The League would set the bar at 19 games played, while the elite clubs favour 26, the rump in the middle 29 and those near the bottom a minimum of 32.

Here’s what it should be: 38. Play the season to the end, or forget it. This is not a campaign like 2019-20 when Liverpool were so far ahead that, by now, there was only one winner.

Stop the race today and Manchester United triumph by 4.47 points from Manchester City, with Liverpool third. Does that seem fair? Would it be right to relegate Fulham, two points behind Brighton, with two games in hand?

It would not be fair to anyone if the Premier League season was not played out in its entirety

Stop last season after 19, 26, 29 or 32 games and Leicester, not Manchester United, reach the Champions League, while Aston Villa or West Ham are relegated. It is only after the 37th game that what eventually became the top four and bottom three was revealed. And that was a season we considered predictable.

Barring Government intervention, there is no reason 2020-21 should not finish. If it means hasty rearrangements of the type Fulham weathered at Tottenham, so be it. There might even be a case, if postponements increase, to pluck matches from further along the schedule and play them now, if an opponent drops out.

Without travelling fans, police or significant numbers of matchday staff to consider, this is a blank canvas and should be treated as such — particularly as some teams have played 18 games and others 15, making PPG calculations less reliable than ever.

It is imperative that football affords maximum flexibility to allow completion. It would be wholly wrong to try predicting the future.

In this of all years, anything could happen.

Baroness Campbell did not apply to be Football Association chair, apparently, because she believes she has unfinished business as Director of Women’s Football. You could say that.

Unfinished business part one might involve finding a coach for the women’s team at the Olympics, now that Phil Neville is Miami-bound and Sarina Wiegman, his successor, will still be in charge of Holland in Tokyo. The succession has been clumsily mismanaged, leaving Team GB’s plans in jeopardy.

Then there is the matter of the Women’s FA Cup, which has been suspended with three early rounds incomplete, because it is not classified as an elite event and cannot continue during lockdown.

Baroness Sue Campbell is 72 and the age limit for the Football Association chair role is 70

It seems Baroness Campbell, among others, failed to consider the possibility of a winter curtailment for grassroots sporting activity, and missed the chance to bring those matches forward to earlier in the calendar.

With an entire competition now in crisis, it hardly supports an application for an even greater leadership role as FA chair.

Any other business? Well, Campbell is 72, and the current age limit for the job is 70.

And as an FA employee she would not meet the criteria of an independent appointment, placing the organisation in breach of the Code for Sports Governance. Apart from that, then, a strong candidate and a great loss.

DEPENDABLE ROMERO HAS BEEN THE PERFECT BACK-UP 

Sergio Romero is expected to leave Manchester United this month, as part of a wider clearout of squad members. What took them so long?

Romero was desperate to go in the summer and had the chance of a loan move to Everton, but the club would not sanction it. It seemed strangely petty on United’s part.

Romero has put in a good shift since joining from Sampdoria in 2015. He deputised when it was thought David de Gea was joining Real Madrid, then returned to his understudy role without complaint. He performed consistently in the successful 2016-17 Europa League campaign under Jose Mourinho. Otherwise, he kept his head down and filled in well when needed.

Had Dean Henderson not made the most of a loan spell at Sheffield United and put pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on his return, Romero was a perfect number two. He is out of contract in the summer and United may see this as the last opportunity for financial return. Either way, he should be waved off and wished well. In the modern game, low maintenance is an underrated quality.

Sergio Romero deserves to be wished well after being low maintenance at Manchester United

The grand thing with Football Association rules and principles is if you don’t like them, they’ve always got others.

So it slipped out last week that any team unable to fulfil their FA Cup tie due to Covid would be eliminated from the competition. It was a harsh rule, but a necessary one. There isn’t room in the calendar for postponements. This was why Aston Villa and Derby fielded youth teams, and lost accordingly.

But Shrewsbury Town were also unable to play against Southampton, and did not have the personnel to send out a shadow XI. Very unfortunate, but tie over, it seemed.

No. Shrewsbury and Southampton will now play on January 19, a development that one imagines would have been met with the odd raised eyebrow at Derby and Villa. Maybe the odd raised voice, too. And flying crockery. 

Shrewsbury Town had to postpone their FA Cup tie against Southampton due to Covid-19




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