'Football does seem a bit irrelevant': how Covid-19 left Portsmouth reeling

David Hytner on 25 March 2020

In the words of Joe Gallen, the Portsmouth assistant manager, the results came back in “dribs and drabs”. The League One promotion chasers had ordered 48 of their players and staff to test for Covid-19 last Tuesday, in the wake of the club’s FA Cup meeting with Arsenal on 2 March. The Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, was diagnosed with the virus on 12 March, and that was really the moment when everything unravelled in English football, leading to the suspension of action.

And so, to quote Gallen again, there was “a bit of a wait for everyone”. He was in the first batch to find out last Thursday, along with nine others. Everybody was clear. But the situation darkened from Friday as the next set produced three positives, Saturday one more and Tuesday yet another. The club have said they are waiting on one last result for a member of the backroom team.

All five of the Portsmouth personnel to test positive have been players – Sean Raggett, James Bolton, Ross McCrorie, Haji Mnoga and Andy Cannon – and it means the club have become the first in British football to confirm multiple members of their squad have the virus.

There is a sliver of good news, and goodness knows we need it. Gallen says the players, who are in isolation, are not suffering. “They are all feeling reasonably good,” he says. “One of them said that he’d lost his sense of smell, which has been mentioned now as a symptom, and two of the others … you could call them as having a cold or a cough. They were all surprised to hear they had it – very surprised. Symptoms-wise, there weren’t many flowing around our squad at all.”

It is nevertheless impossible to shake the slightly unreal feeling that has enveloped the club. Two weeks ago they were in the thick of it, having just played their 50th game of the season – the 2-2 home draw with Fleetwood in the league. It was their sixth match in 18 days and left them fourth in the division, two points off automatic promotion.

Portsmouth were flying high in League One before the season was suspended
Portsmouth were flying high in League One before the season was suspended. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

After a slow start to the season – Portsmouth were fourth from bottom at the end of September – they have won 16 of 30 league games, drawing six – and also reached the EFL Trophy final for the second season in succession. They won it last time when they beat Sunderland. The run to the fifth round of the FA Cup and that tie against Arsenal, which they lost 2-0, was a further source of pride. But now the virus has gripped and uncertainty reigns.

“When we were told we were going to shut down on 13 March, it was a huge disappointment,” Gallen says. “But after a bit of sober reflection, you do start to think that football does seem a bit irrelevant. It’s such a difference to wanting to be successful and win to, oh, hang on a minute, there’s other things going on that are miles more important.”

Like everybody in the game, Gallen is kicking his heels at home, following the news and just waiting. “I was trying to think of a way of doing training and keeping everyone two metres apart [for social distancing],” he says, with a smile. “How does that work on set pieces? It would be very difficult to train. How do you do it? Basically, you can’t.”

When will Portsmouth train again? Gallen does not know. But what does look increasingly clear to him is that the proposed return-to-competition date of 1 May is fanciful. How can it be anything else when Boris Johnson announced at least three weeks of lockdown on Monday?

“Everyone is thinking that’s not going to be the date,” Gallen says. “If it is, then we’ll prepare accordingly, but I’m pretty sure that we won’t be playing games on that date.”

Gallen’s thoughts have turned towards his players’ fitness and their readiness to resume after the hiatus. He believes it would not take them as long as many people think.

“When you finish in May, you normally get six to eight weeks off,” he says. “And as soon as the players start to come back, they are usually into a certain shape after two and a half weeks. The players are keeping themselves fit at the moment and the thing to say is that players do look after themselves, even during the off-season. Invariably, most come back fit. They just do – at every level. It’s their job to stay fit. So my opinion, based on 20 years [as a coach], is that the players will be up to speed in two or two and a half weeks.”

Andy Cannon
Andy Cannon is one of five Portsmouth players to test positive. Photograph: Denis Murphy/TGS Photo/Shutterstock

There is the caveat of match fitness. “Most coaches, managers and players would say that if we were to do 10 days of fitness work, on that first game, most players would be blowing out of their proverbials after 20 minutes,” he says. “The only way to get match fit is to play competitive matches. It’s pretty obvious but you’d be amazed how some people think it’s anything but that.”

Football faces tough choices and one of them could be whether to attempt to finish the season with games behind closed doors. Gallen says it would be a nightmare for supporters but, if the alternative were to be voiding the leagues, he would give it his blessing.

“If this season doesn’t restart and Liverpool don’t get the Premier League trophy, that would be heartbreaking,” Gallen says. “If there was any opportunity to get the season done and dusted, that would be better than just leaving it and I’d say that with a heavy heart if the fans were not allowed to attend. It would stop a lot of arguments, a lot of lawyers.

“The thing I would also say is if we all do right by the government and follow their instructions, we’ll be able to get our football season back quicker than if we don’t. If everyone just carries on going about their business, it’s going to be longer.”

Latest football headlines

Latest Football News