I once read that Twitter is at its best during the first few minutes of a breaking story, and at its worst over the next few days. And so it was on Saturday when it broke that Oxford’s game against Crewe had been called off.
In typical Twitter style, the timeline of events was still being established when the accusations, recriminations and resolutions started swamping the facts. So, let’s try and establish what happened first…
As far as I can tell, Crewe midfielder Ryan Wintle felt unwell during an EFL Trophy game against Newcastle Under 21s on Tuesday and went for a CoVid test, which came back positive. Defender Omar Beckles, who wasn’t showing symptoms, also got a test privately because he has a baby, which Crewe didn’t know about (the test, not the baby).
On Friday, Wintle didn’t travel to Oxford but Beckles did. On Saturday morning, Beckles’ test result came back positive. Knowing this, Crewe travelled to the stadium with the intention of playing the game, told Oxford about the positive test, which had already filtered through to the Kassam. Oxford then raised their concerns. After a lengthy discussion, including perhaps who would take the blame and therefore possible sanctions, Crewe said they were unable to fulfil the fixture.
Let’s break it down, fair enough that Wintle and Beckles got tests, and I hope both recover well. Crewe knew about Wintle which should have put them on high alert. Even if they weren’t able to provide tests themselves, it’s surely sensible to tell the players to report any symptoms or tests they may get privately.
Then there’s the attitude towards Beckles’ test. A friend once had a cancer scare when they found a lump and went to the doctor. They were alarmed when it was referred to the hospital as ‘suspected cancer’. This wasn’t because they had cancer (they didn’t), but because they couldn’t rule it out. So, they were put on the first step in cancer treatment, which is to find out if you have cancer. I know of a similar process at a local primary school, any Covid symptoms are considered a suspected case, the child isolates and gets a test. The assumption is that they have the virus until proven otherwise.
Crewe seem to have taken the attitude that a test is a precaution, but not a possible case. Which is admirable positive thinking, but boneheaded. Beckles seemed to assume that the test would come back negative because he was asymptomatic. Which is the opposite of what he should think.
I’ve got some sympathy for him; he has no symptoms, a job, a family and isn’t likely to be high risk. Being stuck in the house with a baby would be no fun and he’s only just arrived at Crewe, so will still be establishing himself.
But more than this, there is plenty of noise out there trying to downplay the existence CoVid and its impact. There’s a significant but growing minority of people who choose to trivialise it. No scientist knows what a second wave might look like – it might be a fraction of the first wave, it might be ten times bigger. There are still so many unknowns about the first wave – there have been 467,000 cases in the UK and 42,000 deaths – a ratio of 1 in 11. But 70,000 more people have died this year than in the last five, if that’s not CoVid related, then what is it? There are likely to have been more cases, and you’re much less likely to die than the official ratio suggests. There’s the question of dying with and dying of CoVid and who is vulnerable – people with underlying health conditions are not necessarily people who would die anyway, as some might choose the believe. Plus there’s the fact dying is only one consequence, there are unknown long term impacts, there’s pressure on services in the event of large cases. The truth is that nobody really knows and now is not the time to speculate. Until we know, people should assume the worst and be cautious. Beckles and others shouldn’t feel the need to hide their concerns. In fact, they should be praised for going for the test.
But it goes further, Crewe travelled with Beckles on the team bus and stayed in a hotel, then travelled to the stadium to tell Oxford what had happened. Crewe manager David Artell’s response was nothing short of staggering:
“We were prepared to play, Oxford probably quite rightly said we don’t want to expose our players to that, which is fully understandable. Let’s be honest, it’s fully understandable because they don’t know how many are infected on our bus because the infected player came down with us last night. All stayed in separate rooms. We’ll be tested Monday, whenever the test kits come to us to ascertain the extent of the spread, if there is actually a spread.”
There are three potential explanations for this; the first is that David Artell is an imbecile. He incriminates himself, shows casual disregard of the impact of what he’s done, implies that Oxford are unnecessarily cautious. He even goes on to try and take credit for revealing the case, saying that he could have kept it quiet, but didn’t want to weaken us, which is good of him.
The second is that Artell knows he’s made a grave error in travelling to the ground, is trying to play it down and is just doing it really badly.
And finally, it’s possible that Artell is fully aware of what has happened but is simply the victim of the culture he’s in – a lack of openness in his squad, a lack of transparency, trust and proper priorities in his club, a lack of testing, leadership and accountability from the EFL, government or PFA. He’s just a victim of the world around him, as we all are, but he’s the one who has to face the press.
There was a lot of talk about testing regimes immediately afterwards and how all players and staff should be tested regularly. While that’s the ideal and should be the aim, it’s costly and complicated. Even if it isn’t in place now, then we should be working towards it.
But, in the absence of testing, there’s another key element to all this. Karl Robinson described Oxford’s approach to CoVid and how several key players nearly didn’t play against Accrington because of concerns. Players like James Henry, Elliot Moore, Sam Long and Cameron Brannagan absented themselves from the club for a few days when they thought they might be a risk.
You could take the view that the club are too cautious, they believe the negative hype, they are too soft.
But actually, it’s the openness and trust that exists within the club that sings out. It costs nothing to build that culture but takes a lot of effort, Karl Robinson has invested himself heavily to create that culture ever since he arrived at the club. As a result their response to the pandemic has been nothing short of exemplary. To use a favourite Robinson phrase, we should be ‘hugely proud’ that those standards didn’t drop under pressure from a club whose standards fall some way short of that. It should reinforce the benefits of openness. It’s not just a lesson other clubs could learn, maintaining those standards and treating this thing more seriously is something we could all benefit from.