The Premier League would never recover from a second shutdown because the biggest clubs would seize the opportunity to establish a European super league, the Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo warned on Monday.
Nuno issued the stark warning after an alarming rise in positive Covid tests in the Premier League, and disruption to the fixture schedule, prompted some managers to call for another lockdown or short-term circuit breaker.
The shadow sports minister, Alison McGovern, also said it was becoming “increasingly difficult” to keep elite sport such as the Premier League going. Ministers indicated they had no plans to change the rules on elite sport even though the government is looking again at tightening exercise rules for the general population in England. The Football Association is to write to clubs for the second time in a week, reminding them of the importance of following reinforced coronavirus protocols, after a weekend of Covid-19 controversy in the FA Cup third round.
Aston Villa’s game against Tottenham on Wednesday has been postponed because of an outbreak at the Midlands club, with Fulham now playing Spurs at short notice, although the Premier League has informed clubs it has no plans to suspend the season.
Nuno and Everton’s Carlo Ancelotti, whose teams meet at Molineux on Tuesday, are among the top-flight managers who believe football should continue. The former suspects the Premier League would be fatally undermined by another shutdown because the wealthiest clubs would seek to capitalise on the uncertainty by pushing their expansion plans. Liverpool and Manchester United were approached regarding a European Premier League in October and Project Big Picture, a revamp of the English top flight which suggested reducing teams to 18 and scrapping the EFL Cup, has been discussed.
“If we stop everything will change,” the Wolves manager warned. “A new football will come, probably with a Super League, probably with other competitions. It’ll be a matter of which clubs will survive. It’s a tough decision to make. I don’t know what is better. What I’m afraid of is, if the decision is to stop, football we know now will not be the same. This is my biggest fear. The schedule will go crazy and it’ll be impossible to finish the league and think about the Euros.
“We cannot move forward and go back to a normal situation. The virus and pandemic is affecting things a lot, the increase of cases is growing in a scary way. This is what my main concern is. Things have changed – almost a year ago we were stopping because we didn’t know what was happening. It was something we hadn’t experienced. There were a lot of doubts. After the restart everyone made a big effort. There were protocols, meetings, things exchanged, we were sure no matter what we were playing because we only needed 14 players.
“Now things have changed and we are starting to think about stopping again. If you have a crisis the strong will survive – what about the rest? My personal view, when I have an awareness of what’s going around, you will not find the same model we have now.”
Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, said on Monday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Premier League was suspended again. “It’s obviously ramped up enormously and the speed of what’s been happening over the last eight weeks has changed the situation in the country. As always, we’ll play with a straight bat, we’ll do what the Premier League wants us to do.”
Steve Bruce, the Newcastle manager, has argued it is morally wrong for football to continue amid the rise in infections and deaths. Ancelotti disagrees. “I understand what Steve said but football can be a good distraction in this period if people stay at home and watch it on TV,” said the Everton manager, who would have no issue with the Premier League, or government, banning mass goal celebrations.
Ancelotti said: “There is no rule that says you are not allowed to celebrate. We are really strict in following the rules that the Premier League have put in place, really strict to follow the protocols, and if the Premier League say you don’t celebrate, you don’t hug, then we’re not going to celebrate.
“We wear masks in the dressing room, we try to keep social distancing, and so on. We’re really strict at following the protocols. It will not be a big problem if they say you are not allowed to celebrate if you score goals. We adapt to everything. Now, managers don’t celebrate after a goal. If you look now there are no managers who celebrate because you have to wait for the VAR check. And so the celebration for the manager has gone and it can also be done for the players.”
Everton’s leading goalscorer, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, will miss the trip to Wolves with a hamstring injury.
The Premier League said on Monday that there were 36 new positive Covid tests last week, after 2,593 players and club staff were tested.