Rich Laverty column: WSL players must learn lessons from Dubai debacle

With the postponements of Manchester City v West Ham and Aston Villa v Arsenal announced on Thursday after players’ trips abroad, teams need to take more responsibility in the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Rich Laverty.

Football can often be divisive but the women’s game has united in anger and disappointment over the WSL players’ misguided trips to Dubai.

From positive COVID tests to Vitality FA Cup ties potentially being decided by a coin toss or drawing of lots, this week we’ve almost seen a complete bingo card of stories women’s football doesn’t need or want.

The fact the England manager may be about to leave his role ahead of time, leaving Team GB with no head coach would usually be the top story, but this week it has barely registered across the wider women’s football fan base.

As we approach what is yet another COVID-19-hit game week in the FA Women’s Super League and Championship, this time there can be no arguments any backlog from the coming fixtures is entirely self-inflicted.

On Tuesday, Manchester City confirmed four of their players had tested positive for Coronavirus and later that evening it emerged an Arsenal star had also tested positive after returning from Dubai, forcing several team-mates to isolate amid reports others were “furious” with the player in question.

The Gunners got the postponement they requested for their match against Aston Villa this weekend, who always seem to be the unlucky team on the end of most call-offs. Meanwhile, it was also confirmed on Thursday morning that Man City’s tie against West Ham, initially scheduled for this weekend, will be postponed until an as yet unconfirmed date

While it appears Arsenal have accepted that their players made business trips – the only way they would have been allowed to travel from a Tier 4 area – the fact several team-mates have now been forced to isolate creates further complications, depending on how many that figure turns out to be.

For City, however, it is clear too many players were affected to play this weekend’s match, beyond COVID-19 positives. Just as they were beginning to build momentum, positive tests have put a stopper in their progress. They will also now most likely be without several key players for next Wednesday’s crucial Continental Cup tie with Chelsea, although it looks unlikely at this stage that game will go ahead either.

The clubs are now in a sticky position, and it’s not just City and Arsenal who have been affected by Dubai trips, but they’ve been in the spotlight. The way in which the COVID-19 positives have come about raise questions, for me, about whether City or Arsenal should really be entitled to a second chance.

It’s believed City granted their players permission to travel as Manchester was a Tier 3 area at the time. Even if none broke any laws, what’s morally right in the current situation the world finds itself in is a different thing, and you can only hope all the players involved learn lessons from the fallout. 

It’s unsurprising team-mates, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere, are said to be angry and senior staff disappointed. As someone who works for a club in the Women’s Championship, I’ve seen first-hand the work that has gone into trying to keep everyone safe all the way back to when teams returned to training in July.

To see WSL and Championship players fly halfway around the world over the holiday season, and for some to be pictured on a yacht, in the midst of a deadly pandemic is disappointing and has garnered angry reactions from women’s football fans. Even supporters of the clubs in question are asking whether or not their teams should have the opportunity to postpone.

There are two sides to the coin. On the one hand, players at the clubs in question who did stay at home and strictly follow protocols over the holiday period will be punished for errors they didn’t make.

On the other, why should Aston Villa and West Ham (certainly, after the confirmed postponements) miss out on the opportunity to take a positive result against a weakened side? Both clubs seemingly followed protocols throughout the winter period and have full squads to choose from this weekend, so why should they be punished? 

Villa already have a busy enough schedule as it is, given their own COVID-19 positives earlier in the season. Of course, safety comes first and it may be that teams don’t want to risk going up against a side for 90 minutes who may have other players on the pitch unwittingly spreading the virus. Villa have also confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training ground, which may adversely affect the women’s team anyway.

What is known is that these players have a responsibility as leading personalities of the women’s game to know better and take the responsibility upon themselves to do what’s right, even if their club gives them permission to fly. 

For that, the clubs also need to do better. There have been questions about whether even scheduled international breaks are right for the sport at the moment, despite tight COVID-19 protocols and bubbles, with players travelling away and mixing with players from clubs from several different countries – let alone scheduled trips abroad for a holiday.

With the men’s game also adversely affected by a select few flouting protocols over the winter period and wider society entering the most critical period of the pandemic so far, everyone must do better to ensure the show goes on – and in the safest way possible.

Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty

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