01:00PM, Sunday 10 January 2021
Slough Town’s joint manager Jon Underwood has called for the National League to consider mandatory testing for players and coaches after the Rebels released a statement this week calling for a short break in matches to put more rigorous safety procedures in place.
The club is not calling for the season to be ended but, with rising cases, hospitalisations and deaths across the UK – as well as soaring case numbers in Slough – they feel players, coaches, staff and their families are being unnecessarily put at risk by continuing to play matches.
Underwood has called for a short, three-or-four-week break for the National League to reflect on their concerns and come up with some solutions to better protect players and their families.
He said the National League was now an outlier for not having mandatory testing. On Wednesday the EFL announced it would be testing football league players twice a week from now on, however, National League clubs are ‘blindly marching on’ without additional protocols.
Monday’s announcement from Government of another national lockdown has further increased the club’s unease, with restrictions being tightened in seemingly every other aspect of life.
“I think we are the first club (to call for a suspension),” he said. “It’s something myself and Neil both feel very strongly about and although we wrote to the National League two weeks ago expressing our concern not a lot came back from that.
“So, we took the decision to put something out there more publicly, particularly after Monday night’s announcement from Government of another national lockdown.
“We didn’t feel it was right to sit back and not say anything. We spoke to the National League before putting out our statement, it wasn’t about doing anything underhand.
“We just feel there’s a real inconsistency now. The EFL announced yesterday there would be mandatory testing twice a week for players in the football league. We’re considered elite along with them but we’re an outlier now. They’re doing this testing for a reason, because they feel it’s necessary, but there’s nothing like that in place for the National League.”
Who will pay for the additional testing remains the key sticking point, and Underwood insisted clubs at Slough’s level couldn’t afford to take on the cost. He hopes a solution can be found but added that that fell on the National League’s shoulders rather than the club’s.
“I believe it will come down to funding and who is going to pay for it,” he said. “The clubs at our level can’t afford to pay for it. The EFL testing is going to be funded by the PFA but there’s no talk about the National League.
“My daughter can’t go to school and I can’t see my parents, but it feels like we’re blindly marching on with football and I don’t think the measures we have in place are enough anymore.
“Testing doesn’t take away the fact you’re creating more risk for players, but testing – and being able to detect people quickly and then removing them from being a risk to others, would make a real difference. I don’t know whether this will happen, but it stands out a mile now that we’re not consistent with everyone else and this needs to be looked at.”
The National League staged a meeting on Wednesday to discuss a range of issues, most notably funding for clubs in the latter half of the season, however, Underwood believes Slough’s statement will have prompted them to also discuss COVID-19 safety measures.
“We’ll have to see what comes out from that,” he said. “We just need a period of time, a break to get something in line with regards to testing maybe. There’s 14 teams that will play in National League South this weekend and they’re doing so without any new procedures in place. We’re calling for a three- or four-week period to get some more procedures in place and it will also give us some time to see what’s happening around the country with cases.
“It’s not that we don’t want to play football, far from it. For me personally, having football has been key for my mental health, breaking the routine and getting out of the house. It’s not about us not wanting to play football and it feels alien to me to say we shouldn’t be doing it.
“There was no football when we were in lockdown in March and April. Infection rates are about where they were back then. It doesn’t feel right, and we just wanted to make our feelings known.”
He added: “We’re not saying we have all the answers, and we understand that if you pause the season it makes it harder to finish it. These aren’t answers for us to find, the National League needs to step up and make these decisions. All we’re doing is highlighting our own concerns about players’ safety.”
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