Premier League players and managers have told top-flight officials that footballers are being run into the ground.
Players and managers met top-flight officials on two separate Zoom calls on Thursday to discuss the ongoing Covid crisis that has wreaked havoc to the fixture schedule.
Footballers used the meeting to forcefully inform Premier League officials of their major concerns over player welfare – particularly after the decision not to call a festive ‘circuit-breaker’ amid the worrying Covid surge that has gripped English football.
Managers also used the opportunity to press the issue of player welfare. Everton boss Rafa Benitez is understood to have spoken in favour of a break in the season until the New Year.
His comments were met with suspicion given Everton have just nine fit outfield players for the Boxing Day trip to Burnley due to a Covid outbreak.
The issue of re-introducing the five-substitute rule was also raised in the managers meeting.
Personnel at a number of clubs are said to have major concerns about the hectic fixture scheduling this season and feel like their health is being put in jeopardy by the decision to continue playing – a view that was emphasised in the meeting.
Premier League chiefs are said to have taken players and managers views on board and have agreed to reconvene early next year.
Premier League players and managers have warned officials of the risk of being burnt out
It was decided at a meeting on Monday that the festive fixtures would go ahead as planned amid a worrying surge in Covid cases at clubs
Earlier in the day Pep Guardiola, who skipped the manager’s meeting, called on players to strike in order to force football authorities to take player welfare more seriously.
And in a statement related to Sportsmail on Thursday night, Professional Footballers Association chief executive Maheta Molango confirmed the prospect of strike action has already been discussed.
‘I’ve spoken with many senior players on this issue. I can tell you that it isn’t going away. Players don’t choose to speak out on issues like this without having given it a lot of thought.
A significant amount of players and coaches at Premier League clubs believe the right course of action is to stop playing amid concerns over coronavirus and player welfare
‘As their union, the PFA enables players to stand together. That unity gives them enormous strength.
‘Now it’s up to those who run the game at all levels to begin to take this seriously so it’s an issue that can be addressed constructively with players at the heart of the conversation. That has to happen now. This isn’t something that can be kicked down the road again.’
The players meeting was due to take place earlier in the week but was delayed until Thursday.
Some players and staff feel that their health is being put at risk on a daily basis as Covid forces some players into isolation, while others must shoulder the burden to fulfil fixtures
And there is suspicion that the meetings were put back so not to provide further opposition towards the festive period going ahead as normal.
The meeting was held after senior executives at Premier League clubs met with top flight officials on Monday.
At that meeting, the 20 shareholders considered a ‘festive firebreak’ in fixtures in response to the rapid spread of Covid-10 caused by the Omicron variant, which has wreaked havoc in the top flight and EFL.
The idea was rejected in favour of carrying on, but players, the Professional Footballer’s Association and mangers have since spoken out about the risk caused by a fixture pile up.
Rafa Benitez is understood to have asked for a break until the New Year – although his request was met with suspicion due to Everton’s growing injury crisis
Premier League held meetings to discuss the coronavirus situation with players and managers
On Thursday, Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola, revealed he would not attend the managers’ meeting because the only way to protect players was to strike, and that would not happen.
‘I don’t think (a strike will happen) because we want to play. But when people say more competitions, more games and more games and less holidays… we played the first two or three games without players this season,’ said the Spaniard.
‘And now we talk about welfare for players in this moment?’ he added. ‘Everyone take a look at yourself. For FIFA, the Premier League, the broadcasters, the business is more important than their welfare.
Pep Guardiola believes Premier League players will have to organise strike if they want change
‘The tradition from Boxing Day is massively important, it is one of the reasons why the Premier league is so special. This is not going to be changed. I do not approve to play every two days but after three days it is tradition.’
On Wednesday, Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson spoke of their concern at the Christmas schedule, which sees clubs playing twice in two days from Boxing Day, and three times in a week between the Christmas and New Year.
Gerrard said he had ‘no idea’ what team he will name when Villa play Chelsea on Boxing Day, because there are still three rounds of Covid tests before the game is played.
Villa are then due to play Leeds United at Elland Road on December 28, assuming the Whites can field a side, before travelling to Brentford on January 3.
Everton managed to come away from Chelsea with a draw in their last encounter
‘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,’ said Gerrard.
The former Liverpool legend understands why the Premier League wants games to be played and accepts the fixture calendar is particularly tight because of the winter World Cup and European competitions.
But he added: ‘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.’
The spread of Covid-19 continues to be felt in football, with two Boxing Day Premier League games called off today: Liverpool vs Leeds and Wolves vs Watford.
Man City manager Pep Guardiola stressed that the Covid spread was not just football’s issue
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds reported five positive cases and asked for their game to be delayed
Watford are still struggling from a Covid outbreak last week that led to their game at Burnley being called off at short notice and Leeds have developed new cases.
Both clubs requested the postponements on the basis they had too few players available.
Meanwhile, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson told the BBC on Wednesday: ‘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.’
The meetings between the Premier League, its managers and players, came after Everton boss, Rafa Benitez, fumed at being made to play Burnley on Boxing Day, despite having six players out injured and five in isolation after catching coronavirus.
‘My main job now is to have 11 players who can compete in the right positions against Burnley,’ Benitez told his press conference on Thursday. ‘It is not easy.
‘We have nine outfield players available plus three goalkeepers.’
Clubs have been told that if they can field 14 players then matches should go ahead, and they must draw on U21 players, who have made first team appearances to plug any gaps left by regulars.
Maheta Molango, the PFA chief executive, has said the Covid pandemic has increased the problem of fixture congestion.
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.’