Watford captain Troy Deeney says he has been abused both in public and online for expressing concerns about the Premier League’s attempts to restart the season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Deeney told CNN Sport that people online have been wishing ill on his five-month-old baby, who was born prematurely and has breathing difficulties, while people on the street have told him to go “back to work.”
“I saw some comments in regards to my son, people saying: ‘I hope your son gets corona[virus],’” Deeney told CNN Sport. “That’s the hard part for me. If you respond to that, people then go: ‘Ah, we’ve got him’ and they keep doing it.”
Clubs voted unanimously on Wednesday to resume contact training, stage two of the league’s ‘Return to Training protocol,’ though the Premier League later announced that four players and staff from three clubs tested positive for Covid-19.
Deeney has been one of several high-profile players to publicly question a possible resumption and says he has privately received support for his views. However, he believes the backlash he and other outspoken players have received means other footballers maybe fearful of talking about their concerns.
“In a time where it’s all about mental health and everyone says: ‘Speak up, speak out, please speak,’ Danny Rose spoke out … and I spoke out and we just get absolutely hammered and battered for it,” adds Deeney, referring to the England defender’s comments on ‘Project Restart.’
“So people see that and go: ‘Woah’ and it’s not just us that gets it, the missus gets direct messages and you’ll be walking down the street and people will be like: ‘Oh, I’m at work, you go back to work.’”
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Messages of support
With Watford siting precariously near the bottom of the Premier League, Deeney says much of the criticism he received was accusations of wanting the season to be canceled so his club could avoid relegation.
However, once players from teams at the top of the league – including Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante – began voicing their concerns, Deeney felt public opinion began to change.
“Personally, I just think this is showing me that the players have so much power if they actually all came together,” he says. “That’s what this is showing me. I’ve had a lot of messages of support from people that I wouldn’t normally – well, that I didn’t even know had my number for a start.
“But certainly from players from bigger clubs and that shows me that I must be doing something right because I’m just a little old Troy from Watford and everyone seems to listen to what I say.”
Since he first spoke out, much of the narrative has been framed as ‘Deeney vs. the Premier League’ but the striker speaks highly of how the organization has tried to allay his fears.
Deeney says he has now had “four or five” meetings with the Premier League – some productive, others “heated.”
“I just think my concerns were purely for family reasons,” explains Deeney, referring to his young son. “I needed more questions answered with a bit more authority and, at the start, they couldn’t really do that, but not for any reason or want [of trying], it was just because they didn’t have the information.
“I think everyone can appreciate everything that the Premier League is trying to do as well. I don’t think it’s a pure neglect of: ‘We’re going back to work and get on board or [else],’ it’s nothing like that. They have very good lines of communication.
“These meetings don’t stay too safe – there’s some frustrating conversations. When somebody said I’m at the same risk of getting coronavirus by playing football or going to the supermarket, I said: ‘I’ve never had to jump for a header while picking up a cucumber.’
“But then there’s also been some really good ones as well.”
Deeney says he has also been speaking to Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the UK government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who has been providing more information on the statistics which show people from minority backgrounds are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
“He’s been doing very, very good research and there is a lot of good will on his part to tell me, ultimately, that I’m going to be looked after as best as they can and, ultimately, there is going to be some form of risk for all of us going back to work,” Deeney says.
“Lockdown [ending] and the social distancing measures coming down mean people will still always have risk.”
Premier League integrity ‘already gone’
Deeney’s Watford is the only team to have beaten Liverpool in the Premier League this season, winning 3-0 at the end of February to end what many thought would be just the second undefeated season after Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles.’
Before the coronavirus pandemic brought the season to a halt, Liverpool boasted an insurmountable 25-lead at the top of the table and was just two wins away from securing a first top-flight title for 30 years.
Regardless of what happens to the remainder of this campaign, Deeney believes Jurgen Klopp’s side should be crowned champion but also sympathizes with how the circumstances of any potential title win are likely to be remembered.
“I believe that when it comes to the integrity of this season anyway, it’s already gone,” Deeney says. “I feel sorry for Liverpool because no matter how it plays out, they deserve to win the league. They deserve to get the trophy.
“But no matter how it plays out, even if we play all the games, it’s still going to be the year spoiled by the pandemic. It’s not going to be that year that Liverpool won the league being the best team and, you know, it’s 30 years they haven’t won for.
“So I do feel sorry for Liverpool and their players and Jordan [Henderson], but in terms of integrity, there’s no way you could say that this is a viable competition,” added Deeney, referring to the Liverpool captain.
“It’s like running a marathon, 20 odd miles, stopping for two months and then sprinting the last bit and going: ‘Ah, that was a good time that.’”
‘Thrown under the bus’
At the start of April, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock gave an answer during the daily coronavirus briefing in which he specifically called on Premier League players to do more during the crisis.
“I think everybody needs to play their part in this national effort and that means Premier League footballers too,” said Hancock.
“Given the sacrifices people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS, who have made the ultimate sacrifice and gone into work and caught the disease and have sadly died, I think the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution; take a pay cut and play their part.”
Hancock’s comments played a part in Premier League players becoming a lightning rod for criticism from both the public and politicians amid the early stages of the pandemic.
This was exacerbated when a number of Premier League clubs opted to use the UK government’s job scheme – intended to aid those employers most severely affected by the Covid-19 shutdown – to help pay the wages of non-playing members of staff placed on temporary leave.
“If you remember, we got thrown under the bus by the politician here in the UK that was saying that football players need to do more to give to the NHS,” says Deeney.
“We were already talking about giving a donation as players, those conversations were already in the pipeline and it just escalated due to somebody deciding that they wanted to throw footballers under the bus.
“How we feel sometimes is: ‘There’s a crisis, let’s go to the footballers.’ So it’s the NHS, it could be anything. The politician that said that we should be doing more was posed with the question: ‘Could he give up some of his money?’ And he said he’s gonna work harder. So that was nice to hear.”
CNN has reached out to the Department of Health and Social Care for comment but is yet to receive a response.
“At that time, it was very early into the pandemic, we were all watching the news, trying to learn about what’s going on today really,” Deeney added. “Most of us [players] are watching it and then you see that and you’re like: ‘Where did that come from?’”
Less than a week after Hancock’s comments, Premier League footballers announced a collective initiative called ‘PlayersTogether’ which would donate funds to NHS charities during the pandemic.
“And for players, even if we came out and said: ‘We’ve all donated X amount of money,’ it still wouldn’t be enough,” said Deeney.