As of Tuesday night, Manchester United felt they had contained the Covid-19 outbreak in the first-team and expected the Brighton fixture to go ahead on Saturday.
On Wednesday, first-team operations reopened at the club’s Carrington training complex and at least 17 first-team squad members were accounted for. On that evidence, United had more than the minimum 14 players required to fulfil a fixture, as per the Premier League handbook.
Scott McTominay left after half-an-hour and the club refused to confirm if he had tested positive. McTominay reported again on Thursday. Only he was one of five players spotted. Two of them, Raphael Varane and Edinson Cavani, have not played since November 2 and another, Tahith Chong, is an injured loanee at Birmingham City.
Just before 1pm on Thursday, two separate sources messaged at exactly the same time to say the Brighton game would be postponed. United and the Premier League eventually announced the inevitable at 14:41.
Premier League fixtures went ahead on Thursday night and, at the time of writing, five are due to be staged this weekend. Five have already been called off.
The United Under-23s’ match against Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village tonight has predictably been called off. The Manchester Evening News reported this week some U23 players had tested positive.
Covid had left the United first-team department so decimated some callow U23s were due to be included in the squad at Brentford. United have scant Under-23s with ‘relevant experience’ and that bolstered their case to the Premier League for postponement at Brentford.
Most supporters planning on travelling to London from Manchester would have been asleep when the league confirmed the game was off at ten to midnight on Monday. The United squad was due to fly down at 10am on Tuesday morning without having a full training session since the win at Norwich on Saturday.
The presence of two goalkeepers on the bench at Carrow Road was telling. United already had significant injuries to contend with and new manager Ralf Rangnick, unlike his permanent predecessor, is conscious of not rushing players back.
Paul Pogba, one of the 17 players seen on Wednesday, is not due to be considered for selection for another three weeks. Cavani was namechecked by Rangnick in his team news bulletin on Saturday but Varane wasn’t.
At least one United player who had previously contracted Covid tested positive again over the last week. One of the United players who has Covid has assured they are ‘okay’ and training in their home gymnasium.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed he was double-jabbed in August and publicly encouraged players to follow suit but sources have said United have a low percentage of players who are double-vaccinated. The Premier League has not released any data on vaccine uptake by players since October when it stated 68 per cent of players were fully vaccinated.
In the same month, it emerged 98 per cent of players and staff in Serie A were double-jabbed and 94 per cent in the Bundesliga. In La Liga, 93 per cent of players and staff are fully vaccinated.
United conducted themselves impeccably during the first lockdown, refusing to furlough staff, making donations to local food banks and donating medical equipment to the NHS, as well as gifts to frontline workers. Manchester was wilfully turned blue and the red dimmed on 13 letters of the neon ‘Manchester United’ sign at Old Trafford to highlight ‘NHS’.
Supporters added Covid passes to their virtual wallets in anticipation of checks at Old Trafford this weekend, the last pre-Christmas fixture. Many would have planned for the occasion months in advance, booked accommodation and carefully planned travel by land, sea and air.
The squad’s outbreak has already wiped out two matches and United are believed to be keen on a three-week firebreak. Health goes beyond physical well-being and livelihoods depend on United; local independent businesses on matchdays, stadium staff and the positive headspace football offers. “Just play the kids,” one United fan, who was due to drive to Brentford and stay over, messaged me.
Vaccine sceptics in the squad would doubtless complain of burnout if there is a backlog of fixtures to fulfil in a year where June is already crammed with Nations League fixtures, July offers scope for pre-season tours and the World Cup final falls seven days before Christmas. The 2022-23 Premier League season is due to resume on Boxing Day.