There were plenty of hugs after Ruben Neves scored for Wolves against Everton
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Premier League players flagrantly ignored the toughened Covid-19 curbs on Tuesday night, prompting Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder to claim it is "unnatural" to stop them hugging.
Concern from ministers and fresh orders from England’s top tier fell on deaf ears as every goal to go in since the new edicts sparked celebratory embraces.
Just four days after the league issued fresh guidance against all "unnecessary contact", there was even a shirt swap at half-time between Everton and Wolves. At Turf Moor, Paul Pogba called over his team-mates to hug as Manchester United beat Burnley to go top of the league for the first time in more than three years.
Sheffield United players, meanwhile, had been first to forget the warnings after Billy Sharp’s penalty gave victory at Bramall Lane earlier against Newcastle. The Sheffield United captain was mobbed immediately after the goal, and there were handshakes all round between the sides at the final whistle, including between Wilder and Steve Bruce.
At Molineux, Alex Iwobi was also surrounded by celebrating Everton players after the opening goal. There were similar scenes when Ruben Neves equalised, as well as for Michael Keane’s late winner.
The scenes came despite players and managers being told warned that a so-called "snooper squad" would be in the stands monitoring breaches. Despite warnings over swapping shirts, Everton’s James Rodriguez exchanged jerseys with Wolves striker Fabio Silva and then also claimed the jersey of Joao Moutinho as he left the field. United and Burnley players also shook hands after the final whistle, with only the managers fist-bumping.
Wilder refused to condemn his players for letting emotions get the better of them during the 1-0 win for his rock-bottom side. "It’s an emotional game," he said. "We’ve talked before about the country looking at us and the other two games, I understood that. But it is an emotional game on the pitch and on the touchline… it is unnatural and unreal (not to celebrate)."
Despite the league’s warnings, the laws of the game do not offer any scope for players to be punished for hugging. Wilder said stopping players from embracing was impossible. "Everyone wants to continue with it in football, the decision will be made outside football through Government into the Premier League," he said. "But how can they not? They are team-mates and I don’t see any way they can just walk back to the halfway line and show no emotion after what they’ve been through for a long, long period."
The governing bodies – including the Football Association – were already concerned that players and clubs have not listened as closely as they should have done in recent weeks with the infection rate spiking across the country and the threat of tougher lockdown measures. The Government is not about to withdraw elite sport’s right to carry on during the lockdown but football has been left in no doubt that it is not a privilege it can take for granted.
After previous on-pitch instructions were largely ignored following Project Restart, the league had been forced to toughen its position due to record numbers of infections in recent weeks.
The Premier League issued a toughened-up list of protocols on Friday calling on teams to show restraint especially when greeting friends on opposing teams. They warned the clubs that they should “avoid unnecessary contact at all times” including “handshakes and hugging” between opposing teams.
Other renewed instructions include wearing face masks on the bench, spot checks of dressing rooms and team buses to ensure social distancing measures are being followed.
The Premier League insists that the clubs investigate and sanction “individual transgressions by relevant persons”, but those do not extend to breaches on the pitch. “Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action by the league individually against the relevant person, where appropriate, and/or against the club.”
Mike Tildesley, who sits on the Sage sub-committee SPI-M, this week told Telegraph Sport it may be increasingly difficult to “justify” the Premier League and other competitions continuing. I can’t believe that an outbreak in a football club, for example, would have a significant risk of wider transmission in the community,” he said. “But we are in a dangerous situation where the R may be significantly greater than one. It may be hard to justify that, while schools are closing, football can carry on.”
Tuesday night’s action came after another day of heightened anxiety in sport, with the Football Association and Premier League writing to clubs warning of fresh postponements. The FA – spooked by scenes of fans gathering on the streets at Chorley and Crawley Town on the weekend – wrote to all third-round winners warning of stricter protocols. It is “absolutely essential” the rules are followed to ensure elite football can continue, the letter adds.
Earlier, Scott Parker had said that it was “scandalous” of the Premier League to reschedule Fulham’s match with Tottenham Hotspur to Wednesday with only two days’ notice. Tottenham had been due to play Aston Villa until an outbreak of Covid-19 at Villa caused the game to be postponed.
Concern at senior government level expressed over the weekend has heightened pressure on football to keep infections in check. Alison McGovern, the shadow sports minister, said this "it is becoming increasingly difficult" for elite sport, but ministers are aware of its critical role in maintaining morale through the pandemic. Telegraph Sport has been told Sage has not been asked by the Government to consider the impact of halting elite sport, with its work focused on measures to reduce the national rate of Covid-19 infection, or R number.
As reported by Telegraph Sport, The Football League chief executive Trevor Birch wrote to the 72 clubs in its three divisions reminding them that “we will come under extreme governmental pressure if we continue to flout rules and guidance.” The EFL completed last week’s Covid-19 testing of its 72 clubs with an additional 531 players and staff from six clubs tested and 11 positive cases returned. In total, 4,038 tests yielded 123 positive tests. The EFL said 31 clubs returned no positive tests.
Why can’t footballers stop touching?
Credit: DAVE THOMPSON
Sheffield United’s players flocked to Billy Sharp after he scored the penalty that gave his team a first Premier League win of the season.
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Wolves’ players celebrated Ruben Neves’ goal with as much hugging as ever.
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Alex Iwobi’s goal for Everton prompted a player sandwich.
There was plenty of physical contact among Manchester United’s players after Paul Pogba scored.
Credit: RICHARD PELHAM
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was eager to get physical in congratulating his matchwinner.