EXCLUSIVE: Premier League clubs are told they MUST field a team for FA Cup third round ties this weekend despite Covid chaos gripping English football – and surge in positive cases could see top teams relying on academy players
Premier League clubs have been told they must field a team for this weekend’s FA Cup third round games despite the Covid surge that has gripped English football.
In a note sent to all 20 clubs on Wednesday, clubs were told that they effectively have to fulfil their fixtures – even if it means fielding a team full of academy players – ultimately meaning there will not be swathe of postponements this weekend.
The domestic calendar has been decimated by a raft of postponements in recent weeks owing to the rise in Covid cases among players and staff and the increasing number of injuries.
Premier League clubs have been hit with a huge surge in positive coronavirus cases this week
In the Premier League, a match can be postponed if a club can prove they don’t have 13 outfield players plus one goalkeeper available from their senior squad and list of ‘appropriately experienced Under-21s’.
An appropriately experienced U21 is a player who has participated, whether as a starter or substitute, for a club in a first-team competition this season.
However, the Premier League have now confirmed to clubs that, unlike their own rules, this season’s FA Cup will not apply any experience criteria to young players.
Instead, clubs will be required to name any registered player on their books to meet the 14 players threshold required for the game to go ahead.
In its guidance sent to teams on Wednesday, the Premier League have also confirmed proposals that any youngster who either plays or is an unused substitute for this weekend’s cup fixtures will be exempt from being considered as an ‘appropriately experienced U21 player’ for top-flight games.
The correspondence, seen by Sportsmail, read: ‘We believe this exception is warranted given the possible consequences of the FA’s position, in respect of a competition that (for our clubs) has not yet begun.
Manchester City, and their manager Pep Guardiola, are one of the worst-affected squads heading into this weekend’s FA Cup third round ties. They face Swindon away on Friday night
‘We also believe it is an approach that helps assist squad availability during a congested January fixture schedule and best protects the balance between maintaining the integrity of the League and ensuring fixtures are fulfilled.’
The FA’s player availability rule does open up the opportunity for top-flight clubs to flood their match-day squads for this weekend’s matches with academy players to give their senior stars a rest.
That is a scenario the FA want to avoid as they look to protect the integrity of the competition and its standing as the most famous domestic cup tournament in the world.
But there is also an understanding from inside the governing body that the prospect of a number of postponements this weekend will only serve to add to the issue of fixture congestion heading into the final months of the season given the number of matches that have already been postponed.
In extreme circumstances, where a club’s playing staff has been completely decimated by Covid and injury, the FA would consider an application to postpone a match.
Premier League managers, like Tottenham’s Antonio Conte (centre) may be forced to rely on academy players to fulfil this weekend’s fixtures
An FA spokesman confirmed to Sportsmail: ‘Clubs competing in the 2021/22 Emirates FA Cup are expected to participate in fixtures as they are currently scheduled.
‘However, if a club does not have the sufficient number of eligible players available due to COVID-19, this should be reported to The FA at the earliest opportunity and would be referred to the Professional Game Board for consideration.
‘Replays have been removed in both the Third and Fourth rounds of the 2021/22 Emirates FA Cup to alleviate the possibility of fixture congestion following several postponements in recent weeks and continued uncertainty ahead due to COVID-19.’
Meanwhile, in line with new Government and Premier League guidelines, the FA have effectively scrapped the use of PCR tests, instead leaning heavily on using lateral flow tests.