Premier League accused of putting players in danger as Steven Gerrard labels schedule ‘out of order’

Steven Gerrard is unhappy with Aston Villa's upcoming schedule

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The Premier League will face more furious responses from players and managers on Thursday over accusations of putting welfare at risk with its congested festive fixture list.

Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson on Wednesday expressed anger at how players are being forced to play twice in two days from Boxing Day, and three times in a week between the Christmas and New Year rounds of fixtures.

The Premier League is due to hold two meetings on Thursday, one with managers and one with captains and senior players, after clubs elected not to implement a firebreak due to rising Covid cases among them and instead push on with the schedule as planned. The meetings were still scheduled to go ahead as of Wednesday night despite growing frustration against the Premier League, having already been pushed back from Monday.

Gerrard insisted it is “out of order” for his decimated Villa squad to play two games in 48 hours, with the rise in omicron cases severely disrupting his preparations for the festive period, and he is the latest manager to take aim at the Premier League over player welfare.

Villa were forced to postpone their match against Burnley last Saturday just over two hours before kick-off after an increased amount of positive tests left them without enough players to field a team.

Gerrard said he had “no idea” what team he will name for the visit of Chelsea on Boxing Day, as he waits for three rounds of further testing.

Villa then face Leeds at Elland Road on Dec 28, and a trip to Brentford on Jan 2, which means the club will have three league games in 164.5 hours.

Though Gerrard appreciates the Premier League’s decision to proceed with the festive games, he claimed the situation risks the health of his players.

League rules dictate that clubs must fulfil fixtures if they have 14 fit players and when asked if that was unfair, Gerrard said: “Yes I do, certainly when you’re going into two fixtures on the 26th and 28th of December.

“I don’t think those fixtures are right anyway with full squads, so to be asked to play those two fixtures, if you’ve got 13 or 14 available, is out of order on the players in my opinion.

“I certainly understand (why) the Premier League wants them to continue.

“Obviously with a World Cup on the horizon and a lot of teams in England doing well in Europe it would be nigh-on impossible to get all the fixtures put in if there’s more cancellations moving forward, so I certainly respect and understand the decision to carry on.

“[But] as long as I live and breathe I’ll never get my head around footballers being asked to play within that short space of time – I’ve experienced it as a player and it’s not good, I can guarantee you that.”

Gerrard revealed the situation over player availability is changing on an hourly basis, with some first-team players now back in training.

At this stage, Villa are hopeful the Boxing Day game against Chelsea will still go ahead but Gerrard could offer no guarantees.

“Everyone knows the strength of the virus and it seems to be everywhere at the moment, and it seems that every club has their own different situations,” he said.

“There’s still three or four days to go and expect things to change. If you’re asking for any team news and my thoughts on a team, you’re wasting your time, I don’t even know myself.

“But right now from our point of view we’ll go ahead [with the game]. As we stand, we’re looking forward to and preparing for the game.”

Henderson meanwhile said Premier League players feel their welfare is being ignored and that players’ concerns are ‘not being taken seriously’ as they are expected to fulfil more fixtures in an ever-expanding domestic, European and international calendar.

"I don’t think people can appreciate how intense it is until you actually see it first hand," Henderson told the BBC on Wednesday.

"Football to us is everything and we want to be able to perform at the highest level every time we set foot on the pitch. And unfortunately, in this period it is difficult to do that.

“That has been like this for a few years now and it has been difficult but then, on top of that, you chuck in Covid and it becomes even harder and even worse.

"I am concerned that nobody really takes player welfare seriously. I think decisions get made – of course we want to play as footballers, we want to get out there and play – but I am worried about player welfare and I don’t think anybody does take that seriously enough, especially in this period, when Covid is here.”

Henderson said there are likely to be representations to the authorities directly from the players, but he doubts anyone is listening. The Professional Footballers’ Association, which has this week been criticised for failing to publish an independent QC-led review into previous failings within the union amid allegations of a ‘cover-up’, is tasked with speaking on behalf of players’ rights.

But Henderson does not believe that is currently the case, leaving football players with a silent voice.

"We will try to have conversations in the background and try to have some sort of influence going forward, but at the minute I don’t feel the players get the respect they deserve in terms of having somebody being able to speak for them independently and having the power to say actually this isn’t right for player welfare,” he said.

"We do speak about it as players because, at the end of the day, it affects us directly.

"I know people will say we do get paid a lot of money to go out and play football. I get that and understand that, but football is everything to us. And especially those players that are playing international games and European games, you get a maximum of probably two or three weeks off a year. I am not sure that is enough to physically recover and mentally recover from the season previous.

"But again, there is no communication with players in terms of what they think, which is a big problem really, I am not saying they have to make decisions on what players think, because everybody will have a different opinion, but I think they need to be part of a conversation because, ultimately, we are the ones that are going out and feeling it and playing it.”

Gerrard and Henderson’s comments came as PFA chief executive Maheta Molango demanded urgent talks to be held over the increasing demand on players, and he also said that it has contacted the International Football Association Board [IFAB] to call for five substitute to be made a permanent law across the sport, which would force the Premier League and English Football League to fall in line with the rest of Europe.

He told The Times: “We now have to have a serious discussion with the football authorities about fixture congestion and this will be led by the PFA on behalf of the players.

“Covid is now exacerbating the situation but this goes back to the point that one of the main concerns of the players has been fixture congestion.

“They cannot always be the last to find out about what is going to affect their lives and their work.”

Player anger is not the only issue that the Premier League is keeping a close eye on, with the threat of closed stadiums remaining a very realistic hurdle for clubs to negotiate in the coming weeks.

Behind-closed-doors football will hurt my club immeasurably

Arteta urges government not to lock out fans

By Sam Dean

Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, on Wednesday issued a plea for football stadiums to remain open to supporters beyond Boxing Day, warning that it is a “different sport” without fans inside the grounds.

Clubs fear they will be forced behind closed doors again after the Prime Minister refused to provide guarantees on crowds beyond Christmas.

Scotland and Wales are both imposing restrictions on fans from Boxing Day, and Arteta made it clear that he would be strongly against any move to prevent supporters from attending matches in the coming weeks.

“Please don’t go back to that stage,” said the Arsenal manager. “Because we have experienced that and it is something that we don’t like. Hopefully it is not what happens.

“It is a different sport [without fans]. Football is all about sharing it with people and having fans around the stadiums. When it is not, it is a completely different sport and the competition gets lost. It is not the same.

“We will play like we have to play. What I am saying is that obviously nobody wants to go back to where we were because we have already experienced it and it is not something we enjoyed a lot. But if we have to carry on doing that, of course, we will.”

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta wants no return to behind closed doors fixtures that clubs endured for a season and a half

Credit: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

As reported by Telegraph Sport on Tuesday, public health directors have warned that matches after Christmas could be “superspreader” events similar to those in March 2020.

Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that there was not “enough evidence” to implement stricter Covid measures by Christmas, which effectively meant that Boxing Day matches in England will proceed as normal.

The Prime Minister refused, however, to rule out any further measures beyond Christmas, prompting fears among Premier League and English Football League clubs that shut-outs will soon be imposed again.

How safe is Boxing Day football for fans?

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