Influential Troy Deeney has refused to return to training – how many Premier League stars will follow his lead?
Watford captain's decision leaves some tough devisions for the game's top brass
Premier League training grounds have been deserted for the last two months.
That is changing, but Watford’s Colney complex will be underpopulated again today.
One player and two members of staff are self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19, with Watford constituting half the division’s six current cases. Other players are reportedly refusing to train, following the lead of Troy Deeney.
The Watford captain has been a vocal critic of Project Restart. He has valid concerns – that his five-month-old son has breathing difficulties and that BAME people form a disproportionate number of UK casualties from coronavirus, which the PFA has also asked the Premier League to investigate – with warped logic.
He felt it was illogical he was being asked to play football when he could not get a haircut, which ignored the reality that most barbers and their other clients are not being tested.
"We're due back in this week, I've said I'm not going in," Deeney, 31, said.
"It only takes one person to get infected within the group and I don't want to be bringing that home.
"My son is only five-months-old, he had breathing difficulties, so I don't want to come home to put him in more danger.
"I can't get a haircut until mid-July but I can go and get in a box with 19 people and go and jump for a header and nobody could answer the questions, not because they didn't want to, just because they don't know the information.
"So I said if you don't know the information, why would I put myself at risk?"
Deeney’s hair is less of an issue, however, than his influence. His candidness is part of his character.
Watford manager Nigel Pearson can be an empathetic figure and had already said he could not force his players to train. Pearson argued against football’s early return himself.
Deeney is not alone in objecting to the proposed comeback.
Newcastle’s Danny Rose said that players are being treated like “lab rats” and “guinea pigs”.
In isolation, he is merely a source of outspoken opinion. The worry for the Premier League is if displays of dissent from Deeney, Rose and Brighton’s Glenn Murray will be followed by others, bringing a new meaning to top-flight strikers.
It is not merely about how many militants there are, but how many followers they have, and how close they are to coming out in support of the outriders. It is safe to say a majority of players want to play but the size of the minority matters.
As the debate has become increasingly toxic – Watford and Brighton’s seeming determination to stay up without kicking a ball has rendered them unpopular with many – the Premier League has to both allay concerns and to decide: how many is too many?
Is it quantity or quality? How many players would need to refuse to play to either derail Project Restart or strip it of credibility?
Does one superstar such as Raheem Sterling or Sergio Aguero count for more than a bunch of lower-profile Watford players? Does the sight of one team missing many of its key components damage them or the division more?
Equally, the players themselves face decisions. This looks the latest case of Premier League exceptionalism. Why is it always the league where self-interest is most apparent?
No Bundesliga players refused to play. A senior source at one Championship club believes no second-tier player in England will opt out. Those at his club, he is convinced, all want to play. Perhaps money is a motive for some elsewhere, he thinks.
That is entirely valid. Premier League players should have a financial cushion but the warning signs are there in the game.
Many of their lower-league counterparts will be unemployed at the end of next month.
Football has no real income without football matches. Lacking a legitimate medical condition, non-playing players should either be furloughed or go unpaid.
Because there is another group to consider: those who will play, and in some cases for lesser wages than those threatening not to.
If they have a right to complain and if it could be a cause for dressing-room disharmony, there is another underlying issue to consider for Deeney, who did much to get Watford promoted and to keep them in the Premier League.
Sitting out the run-in could cost them their top-flight status.
Updated: May 21, 2020 06:58 AM