These are unprecedented times for anyone associated with professional sport, not least those who have a critical role in determining how we return to normality in the weeks ahead: medical staff. Rishi Dhand is a GP in West Yorkshire but at weekends he is the club doctor for both Leeds United and Super League’s Castleford Tigers.
It is people like Dhand who will be instrumental in making sure any sports fan gets to see live action this summer, even if it is from behind closed doors. Medics will be decisive in implementing protocols that ensure safe environments for players, something Dhand says will be a markedly different process depending on the sport.
“The costs attached to testing, for example, could be a huge factor in any sport starting again,” he says. “What’s possible for the Championship and Leeds may not be for rugby league.” For many the notion of testing players to ensure training grounds are as safe as possible is a simple one, but it is likely to be far more complex.
“Our medical teams at Leeds and Castleford will have to look at protocols for a lot of things closer than we ever have [before],” Dhand says. “How do we advise the players on how they act away from games and training sessions, such as going out to the shops? Are they allowed to do that? Do they have to quarantine?
“It’s OK to simply say: ‘Put all the players in quarantine’, but that comes with huge risks; if there is an outbreak locally, does quarantine intensify those risks? There are enormous mental health aspects which people may be overlooking linked to quarantining players too. Medical staff are going to be vital in making sure sport gets going again, which we all want. But it may take some time to get things right.”
For Dhand the consultation about how both football and rugby league can safely resume is combined with the immense pressures of working for the NHS during the pandemic. With GPs an integral part of their local communities, the daily challenges for Dhand have been more demanding than ever before. It has also left him in no doubt about what should happen next.
“This pandemic has emphasised that the NHS is an essential part of our society, and the people who work in it haven’t been treated as well as they should have been by the government,” he says. “When this is all over … that’s something that needs looking at. My fiancee is a midwife so I’m in the surgery and she’s in hospital, and we’re both at a fairly high risk of contracting it yet are still working as normal.
“It’s been a real challenge. We’ve had people pass away in our community and I’ve had to have awful conversations with patients and their families, which has been harrowing. Hospitals are facing different pressures, of course, but with non-emergency services stopping for a while, that all came back on to the GPs. It’s certainly different to normal everyday life.”
With Premier League clubs returning to training, attention will now turn to how the Championship tries to conclude its season, with Dhand and Leeds top and on course for a return to the top flight. That work, at least with medical staff across the clubs, has been ongoing for some time, however.
“One of the rare bright spots from this is that the Championship doctors have developed a real bond and there’s a competition-wide focus to get us up and running properly,” he explains. “We’ve created a WhatsApp group with all the doctors exchanging ideas, and we’ve seen the draft protocols for returning to training that’s been given to clubs in Germany for example. The EFL will need to provide some direction, but it is doable.”
Some feel that sport cannot return until the virus disappears. Dhand disagrees. “It will be a challenge for football and rugby league, but we have to think that this could potentially persist for a while,” he says. “Is there never going to be a risk? Maybe not. Maybe, instead, we need to play to keep everyone safe with as little risk as humanly possible. If you wait until the risk is completely disappeared you don’t know what state professional sport might be in.
“We’re going to have to take baby steps forward with extreme caution, but there are ways we can get our sport back.”
Men like Dhand, the unsung heroes of a sporting organisation, have always been pivotal; now, more than ever, though, their expertise and experience will be essential if sport is to take any sort of steps towards normality.