Tranmere chairman Mark Palios feels it was “incredible” that the club had to draft in youth players to fulfil their Sky Bet League Two fixture against Salford despite positive coronavirus tests depleting the squad.
Ahead of Saturday’s match at the Peninsula Stadium, two unnamed Tranmere players returned positive Covid-19 results, which in turn resulted in four other players having to self-isolate.
The fast-developing situation, coupled with injuries and an international call-up, left Rovers boss Mike Jackson with only 10 first-team players available for selection.
Palios said the club had approached the EFL for guidance, but were told if they had youth-team players who were fit then “we had to play” or face an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the late cancellation and potentially disciplinary action which could result in a 15-point penalty.
Rovers made six changes from the previous fixture against Scunthorpe – naming only five substitutes, with no goalkeeper on the bench – and the visitors were 2-0 down inside the opening 20 minutes.
Jackson’s men, though, produced a dramatic late recovery with goals from Kieran Morris and Paul Lewis, who equalised deep into stoppage-time to secure a 2-2 draw.
Palios feels Tranmere were left with little option but to play the match and “take our chances on the pitch (rather) than in an EFL disciplinary hearing”.
PA understands the EFL look at each match which is postponed because of positive Covid-19 results on a case-by-case basis.
While a points penalty does fall within the governing body’s disciplinary regulations regarding the non-fulfilment of fixtures, it is not a mandatory punishment or set at any specific number, and there could be other outcomes from any investigation once fully concluded.
“We asked for guidance and were told that if we had youth players, we had to play,” Palios told the PA news agency.
“They indicated that the other games called off were on medical advice. We have adhered to the fullest extent of the protocols required.
“As a consequence of Covid, injuries and an international call-up we had 10 players missing.
“I find it incredible that if you lose three players for international duty, you can call off yet in these circumstances when the EFL has forced the issue of starting the season in September and the likelihood of squads being regularly depleted during the second wave, that there isn’t more latitude given.
“They indicated that if we called the game off, the circumstances would be investigated and the penalty for failing to fulfil a fixture would potentially be 15 points.
“In the circumstances, we would rather have taken our chances on the pitch than in an EFL disciplinary hearing.”
Following Saturday’s match, Rovers boss Jackson said: “We had two positive tests at the start of week, they are fine and isolating.
“We then took a decision to isolate a group of our players. It has been a tough week.
“The way the staff and players have reacted is absolutely superb. That sends a statement and is a credit to them.
“The lads isolating are safe and well. The lads who have Covid are OK.
“Our priority as a club is the safety of our players and their families. That is bigger than a football match.”
Later on Saturday evening, Tranmere issued a club statement detailing some of the background to the positive tests and impact on the squad, as well as the response from the EFL regarding a potential postponement.
“We were also informed that as there was no medical advice that it was unsafe to play, there was no guarantee that the club would not suffer a deduction of up to 15 points as a consequence. This was not a risk we felt prepared to take,” the Tranmere statement read.
Tranmere felt by adhering to Government advice, they had been placed at “very significant competitive disadvantage” and expressed concerns being forced to play could encourage other clubs not to test or follow the rules.
“It does not feel right that clubs who may find themselves in Covid hotspots may be put at a competitive disadvantage when virus-related absences are not as a result of them breaching the very strict protocols in place for player welfare,” the club statement added.
“It also seems inconsistent to us that if a football club has three or more players called up for international duty, they can postpone a fixture, however, the same does not apply when a club’s playing squad is impacted by Covid-19.”
Last month, the EFL ruled Leyton Orient would forfeit their Carabao Cup third-round tie against Tottenham, which had been unable to be fulfilled as planned because of a number of their players testing positive for Covid-19.
The O’s were also then unable to fulfil their next scheduled League Two match at Walsall, as both players and members of club staff were in self-isolation.
Other fixtures involving Grimsby and Crewe have been postponed following positive coronavirus tests within their clubs, the circumstances behind which are being investigated by the EFL under competition rules.
Stevenage’s game against Bradford on September 26 was, though, cleared to go ahead by the EFL despite positive cases returned on the morning of the match.