From the exclusion of some of England’s brightest young talents to the unexamined fatalities of migrant workers in Qatar, Gareth Southgate already had ample difficult issues to address when the details around unvaccinated players emerged.
If it is true that five of his players have refused the jab – and the manager has effectively confirmed that some of the squad have not had it – the situation is threatening to undermine his preparations for a World Cup at which players may need to be vaccinated.
Southgate will be well aware that tournament organisers are considering just such criteria for competing at the tournament.
It will not help, then, that he is in the dark over which members of his squad are resistant to the jab. ‘I don’t know,’ the manager said, when asked how many of the squad were vaccinated. ‘Our medical team would know but even I wouldn’t — they wouldn’t tell me who is and who isn’t.
‘We will have an idea because there is going to be some things where one group is going to go through one door and another will go through the other over the next few months, so I don’t know quite how we are going to keep that medical confidentiality.
‘I don’t think it is going to affect us that much because, whenever the players are with us, we are always going to be in a bubble and on a sporting exemption. So I guess the bigger issue is going to be players going back to clubs or clubs travelling in certain countries.’
Southgate has said he never suffered as much abuse as he did this summer after publicly supporting the rollout out of the Government’s vaccination campaign.
But he was prepared last week to reiterate his position ahead of the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, emphasising how young people can contribute to wider society by getting immunised even if the disease poses less risk to them personally.
‘What we do know is that even with the vaccination, it is not going to stop people catching it so in terms of our concerns… on a broader welfare thing is helping everybody to get through this pandemic and I don’t see another way other than a huge vaccination programme frankly,’ he said.
‘I am yet to be advised by those who don’t see it that way what the alternatives are.
‘But from a managing the team perspective, our risk because of their age is more about they are going to miss games because they catch it. Actually even if they are vaccinated we still have to take those precautions because they can still catch it and be ruled out of games. So it’s a strange one for us.
‘We have to make the right representations because we have a responsibility to the broader public to help people get through the virus, but also I understand young people are going to have individual views on how they see it. And they are going to be influenced by what they read and what they see, so it is a far from straightforward cycle.’
England play Andorra away on Saturday and host Hungary the following Tuesday in their penultimate round of qualifiers. With a four-point lead over second-placed Albania at the top of their group, they would need to collapse spectacularly not to make Qatar.
Human-rights campaigns group are urging the England squad to address the issue of human rights in the Gulf nation, where the death of migrant workers have not been investigated, but Southgate said his squad would wait until qualification is secured.
He was also asked to explain Mason Greenwood’s continued exclusion. The Manchester United forward is in good form but has not played for England since breaching coronavirus rules while on national duty in September last year.
Greenwood and Jude Bellingham, his fellow teenager, the manager explained, were given a break to avoid ‘overload’ at a nascent stage of their careers. On the more pressing issue of vaccine hesitancy, his sentiments were echoed by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who compared the social impact of refusing the jab to driving while over the alcohol limit.
‘I explained it for myself a little bit like drink driving,’ said Klopp, adding that ‘99 per cent’ of his players were vaccinated.
‘We’ve all probably been in the situation where we had a beer or two and thought we still could drive, but the law says we are not allowed to drive anywhere so we don’t.
‘This law is not for protecting me when I drink two beers and want to drive, it’s for protecting all the other people because I’m drunk or p****d. We accept that as a law. For me, the vaccination is the same. I don’t take it only to protect me, I take it to protect all the people around me.
‘I don’t understand why that is a limitation of freedom because, if it is, then not being allowed to drink and drive is a limitation of freedom.
‘We are not allowed to ask people if they are vaccinated but I’m allowed to ask a taxi driver, “Are you drunk?” If he says: “I don’t have to tell you”, then I say: “OK, I don’t drive with you, no problem”.
‘If I show up in the office drunk, they can send me home or sack me but we’re not allowed to ask people. I just really don’t understand it.’ Klopp said his dressing room had made their own minds up about being protected.
‘I didn’t have to convince the players. It was more a natural decision from the team. I would give my advice — but it was not necessary. In general, it sounds like we’re not allowed to give people advice. I called doctors I’ve known for years. That is why I took the vaccination and I was really happy when I could. We are vaccinated, pretty much all of the players.’
Brentford’s manager Thomas Frank told this newspaper that his club’s medical staff had been quick to stress the importance of the vaccine to players. Brentford were one of only three clubs, along with Wolves and Brentford, to go public on their vaccination levels earlier this season. Each reported the clear majority of their squads as vaccinated.
‘It’s a personal choice, so it’s about what the players are feeling,’ Frank said. ‘We try to inform them as soon as possible why we should take the vaccination. I’m double jabbed. It’s important to do it to make society tick. We try to explain it in a good way.’
The Football Supporters’ Association has suggested players should take up the vaccine, thus falling in line with the new requirement for fans to be double-jabbed or prove a negative test to attend top-flight matches. Spot checks will be carried out from now on.
‘We all have a role to play in keeping stadiums safe,’ said Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the FSA. ‘The ability to show proof of vaccination, or a recent negative test, plays a key role in that and is something that applies to everyone inside stadiums [including players].
‘Certainly our members will look at divergences between requirements for fans and players. There shouldn’t be different rules for fans and players.’