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Underwood: Short break needed for National League to consider how it can better protect players and club staff

Slough Town released a statement this week calling on the National League to temporarily suspend the season in order to consider how it plans to keep players, coaches, staff and their families safe from COVID-19.

Unlike the Premier League and EFL, there is no mandatory testing for squads at the National League level, meaning players are at greater risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to their families and possibly vulnerable relatives.

Joint manager Jon Underwood feels players at non-league level are at an even greater risk of passing on the virus because - unlike Premier League and EFL players - they also have jobs and find it more difficult to isolate themselves during the week.

The club believes a temporary, three-or-four-week break would aid the National League in creating and implementing additional protocols to protect the players and enable clubs to continue playing matches. Slough has said they will continue to honour their fixtures and are preparing for the visit of Braintree Town on Saturday week, however, Underwood said they hadn’t ruled out the possibility of refusing to play in future.

He also said that it felt like they were blindly marching on with the season when all other aspects of life were being restricted, and hopes it won’t take someone becoming seriously ill, or potentially even dying, for the league to realise it’s unsafe for players to continue mixing in training and on match days.

“We haven’t reached a point of saying that we won’t play games,” said Underwood. “I think that we’re keen to get this out there and see what the response is. I can’t say that we’ll never get to that point, but as it stands, we’re playing a week on Saturday against Braintree.

“There are no plans not to play that game, but we would hope that something changes in the meantime. It feels like we’re waiting for something bad to happen. Is it going to take the first National League player to take the virus home and pass it on to someone vulnerable, and we potentially lose a life? Is that what it’s going to take to get to the point where we decide this isn’t safe?

“We have players who are young, single and they don’t have any fears, but they understand the concerns of some of our other players. We’ve got a player with a pregnant partner and he doesn’t want to pick up the virus and take it to his wife. Others have raised concerns as well. Are we going to get players turning around to say they don’t want to play? It might happen.

“It may put us in a difficult situation but having made the statement we have we couldn’t argue with those players. It’s their right to make that decision, just as it was Neil Baker’s right to take some time away because of his circumstances.

“But it’s not necessarily the young, fit players that are the problem. It’s who they might pass the virus onto. The other difference for us compared to football league players is that our boys have got jobs. They’re electricians and have other jobs which mean they have to go in and out of people’s houses. They have to do this to support their families.

“If you’re a Premier League player, it’s probably a bit easier to isolate in your five-bedroom house, whereas our guys have different circumstances and they’re potentially more at risk than those players. Yet we have less stringent protocols in place to make them safe. It just doesn’t feel right and I’m happy the club supported and shared our views on this. The easier thing would have been to carry on and say nothing, but someone has to step up and take a bit of flak and that’s fine. It wasn’t going to stop up from standing up for what we believed in.

“We love playing football and it’s a huge part of our lives, but we also have a responsibility to the players to ensure they and their families are kept safe.”

The club has already taken criticism on social media from those who believe their stance is to do with the Rebels’ poor start to the season, however, Underwood insists it’s purely about protecting the players and staff, something he feels clubs have a duty to do. He also hopes the statement will prompt a response from rival clubs, both in support as well as against, to generate a debate on the matter.

“We’ve already taken some criticism on social media and people have suggested it’s because we’ve not made a great start to the season,” said Underwood. “They’ve also said we were quite happy to go ahead with the play-offs in July. But what I would say to that is we were in a very different situation in July. It felt like we were coming out of it in July and we also had testing in place when the threat was nowhere near the same as it is in the country now. It’s completely different circumstances to where we are now.

“We know there are managers in our league that feel the same way.

“They’re at different clubs, some going very well and others doing not so well, but they all hold the same concerns about safety. Will they step up and say something, I don’t know. I’d like to think that all clubs in the league will read our statement and give it some thought. Everyone has different opinions on this but if we stimulate some debate and thought around the subject that can only be a good thing.

“Slough right now is one of the worst affected places in the country, but it feels like there’s tight restrictions for everything but not National League football. Hopefully that will change.”

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