Fallout from Dubai trips threatens civil war within WSL | Women’s Super League

The fragility of the Women’s Super League has been exposed after a combination of rising Covid‑19 infections and shallow squads prompted the postponement of four of this weekend’s six top-tier fixtures and left another in doubt.

While the Football Association’s deferment of Aston Villa v Arsenal and Manchester City v West Ham on Saturday stemmed from coronavirus outbreaks imported by Arsenal and Manchester City players returning from ill-advised Christmas trips to Dubai, an injury crisis prefaced Birmingham’s decision to call off their visit to Tottenham. An independent tribunal will determine whether their action was justified and, if not, Birmingham could face a fine and/or points deduction.

As questions mounted regarding the WSL’s ability to complete the season – or at least continue without a circuit breaker-style pause – Sunday’s fixture between Bristol City and Brighton was also threatened by a mixture of Covid and injuries. Should that game fall, Reading v Chelsea would be the sole survivor as the league faces a mounting fixture backlog following an ill-starred winter break.

If the emergence of players visiting Dubai – a headline-grabbing controversy involving leading footballers strutting their stuff on Jumeirah Beach – hardly came as a shock, the gender of the internationals from Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City who flew to the United Arab Emirates provoked surprise. Maybe the received wisdom that women footballers are invariably impeccable role models requires some revision?

Although none of the players did anything illegal, government advice counselled against such journeys and the consequences could be calamitous for the remainder of the campaign.

Given that a number of Covid-19 infections acquired in the UAE have led to club-wide outbreaks, accusations of irresponsibility, naivety and arrogance are being directed at those involved.

Granted, the once undreamed of attention can be seen as a milestone in the game’s evolution from niche pursuit to mainstream popularity, but they are also corrosive. Apart from prompting damaging fallouts between team-mates at Arsenal, the attendant media storm has opened a window on a disturbing lack of candour and willingness to shoulder responsibility among some elite clubs.

After it emerged three Arsenal internationals headed to the Middle East for a jaunt classified as a “business trip”, the manager, Joe Montemurro, remained silent. Likewise, Manchester City’s manager, Gareth Taylor, has said nothing in response to an outbreak sparked by four of his leading players returning from Dubai carrying infections.

So hats off to Casey Stoney for apologising having allowed some of her Manchester United players to visit Dubai for an ostensibly commercial event she describes as “a holiday”. “I’m deeply, deeply sorry,” said the former England captain. “It was a poor error of judgement, a mistake.”

The Manchester City manager, Gareth Taylor, has not spoken publicly about four of his players testing positive for Covid following a trip to Dubai.
The Manchester City manager, Gareth Taylor, has not spoken publicly about four of his players testing positive for Covid following a trip to Dubai. Photograph: Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC/Getty Images

Considering no United player subsequently tested positive, Stoney could have stayed silent, but she is concerned by the self-destructive omerta elsewhere. “It’s not great for the game; there does need to be a lot more transparency,” she said.

That message was aimed partly at Willie Kirk. On Friday morning, Everton’s manager said the club had “no Covid positives” and praised his squad’s “exemplary behaviour” in adhering to health protocols. Eight hours later the FA informed Stoney that United’s game at Everton was off due to Covid issues inside a club already struggling with injuries.

It transpired Kirk had been somewhat disingenuous. The FA revealed five of his squad had tested positive between Christmas and New Year and despite now registering negative results they were not fit enough to play.

Stoney voiced fears that the FA’s requirement for 14 fit players to fulfil a club’s fixtures could be open to abuse. Meanwhile, the infinitely less well-resourced Bristol City manager, Tanya Oxtoby, and her Brighton counterpart, Hope Powell, confronted the havoc Covid wreaks on already skinny squads featuring several first-teamers sharing accommodation.

Small wonder that respected veteran players, including Villa’s Anita Asante and West Ham’s Gilly Flaherty, who spent the early part of their hard-won careers fighting for professionalism, are furious over the Dubai misadventure.

Asante described the trip as irresponsible and Flaherty went further. “As much as the growth of the professional women’s game is brilliant, I really don’t like the arrogance that the money and wages have introduced,” she said. “Hopefully the girls involved will apologise. They need to remain humble and remember how quickly things can change.”

With Chelsea angered by the postponement of their Continental Cup quarter-final against City on Wednesday, an unwanted descent into a chaotic civil war beckons.

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