O'Neill calls for season to be extended after 'scary' Covid-19 experience

Lee O'Neill talks to club owner Marcus Evans at Wycombe Wanderers Picture Pagepix

Ipswich Town's general manager of football operations, Lee O'Neill (left), and owner Marcus Evans. The former has been ill with Covid-19. Photo: Pagepix - Credit: Archant

Ipswich Town's general manager of football operations, Lee O'Neill, believes the League One season needs to be extended after recovering from his own 'scary' experience of being ill with Covid-19.

The Blues saw four successive games postponed over the festive and New Year period as the coronavirus spread rapidly through third-tier football clubs, just as it has across the nation, decimating the fixture list.

Eight players in the Blues camp tested positive in the run-up to Christmas, with all of them having suffered mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The three members of staff that caught the virus - O'Neill, manager Paul Lambert and academy chief Bryan Klug - were all hit hard though.

“I’m feeling better now than I did 10 days ago, but it’s not been nice at all to be honest with you," said O'Neill. "Actually it’s been really horrible.

“We think it was either the Portsmouth or Burton game when it got spread around the club.  

“I was with Marcus (Evans) most of the Burton day, but he didn’t get it. Paul and Bryan (Klug) did get it though, along with a few of the players. 

Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans and general manager of football operations Lee O'Neill. Photo: Steve

Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans (left) and general manager of football operations Lee O'Neill. Photo: Steve Waller - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

"I really took ill on the Friday night (Dec 18). I suffer a little bit from headaches in general, but this headache was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t good. 

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“I didn’t really think Covid, because I’d had no other symptoms, but that night my temperature went through the roof. 

“By the Monday I was in bed and couldn’t move. And by the Tuesday I was struggling to breath. It was panicky, I’ll be honest with you."

O'Neill, a former footballer and PE teacher, only recently turned 39.

"I actually got the positive test on my birthday," he laughed, in between coughs. "That was nice of the NHS to send me a 'you've got Covid!' card!

“I was maybe a bit naïve. I was thinking I was relatively fit and healthy and had always been able to deal with most things that come my way, be it coughs, colds, flu and all of that.   

“Maybe Covid has shown that’s not the case! Or I guess I could flip it and say that because I am active and relatively young it stopped me getting even worse.

Ipswich Town's general manager of football operations Lee O'Neill. Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown

Ipswich Town's general manager of football operations Lee O'Neill. Photo: Archant - Credit: Archant

"I know people who have passed away from this. It’s really scary. I can definitely see how it could really, really frighten people who have asthma or heart issues or who are overweight. Because it did scare me at one point. I was really worried about it. 

“I can’t shift the cough, as you can hear. I go into a coughing spasm and that still affects my breathing. I feel better than I did before though, which I’m pleased by, because people say it can go the other way after a couple of weeks. 

“The thing I’m worried about now is that my poor little boy has got it. He’s only two and you see him with a 39 degree temperature and shivering away. That’s horrible."

As it stands, Town are due to return to action with a Sky televised home game against Swindon Town on Saturday (5.30pm ko).

“I haven’t been able to see the players face-to-face, obviously, but I’ve spoken to them on the phone and via text. And I’ve spoken to the staff who have been in working with them," said O'Neill. 

“It sounds like they are in good positions to go again, but, being brutally honest, we don’t really know how they'll react until the games start.

Ipswich Town striker Kayden Jackson says summer interest from Bournemouth was 'flattering'. Photo: P

Kayden Jackson recovered from Covid-19 earlier in the season. Photo: Pagepix - Credit: Archant

"We’ve had 10/11 players now who have Covid. Yes, they might be alright in the short-term. But when you consider the physical demands of elite sport – the load that is put on their hearts and respiratory systems – we're in new territory as to how these athletes are going to react over the next six to 12 months. 

“I can only speak from my own personal experiences with it. Could I go outside now and even go for a jog? The answer would be no, let alone go and play 90 minutes of football at a really high intensity."

Ipswich are now due to play their remaining 28 games of the season over a hectic 120 days.

Once the AFC Wimbledon fixture is re-arranged, Town will have just six blank weekends left in their schedule to utilise for any further postponements.

Already, from Saturday, January 6 through to Saturday, March 20 it is continuous Saturday-Tuesday action. That spell of 13 games in 45 days will involve 2,500 of travel for the team, including long midweek trips to Hull, Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood.

So where does O'Neill stand on how this season gets safely completed?

“I am very much for the EFL helping out with more testing," he said. "That would have enabled us to put some more precautions in place and stopped the spread. 

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Paul Lambert is under pressure as Ipswich Town manager. Photo: Pagepix - Credit: Pagepix

“Testing comes at a massive cost financially though. We’re not talking one or two people getting tested, we’re talking 50/60 people in our one ‘bubble’ at the training ground.  

“It’s just over £100 a test. And we did 57 tests the other day. That obviously does mount up. 

“I know there’s been talk of making twice-a-week testing mandatory. I can’t see that happening, but I would like to see it at least once a week.

"At the moment it's the clubs pay for that testing. That’s tough, because we're all really struggling financially. Yes, the bail out grant is going to help, but that’s only really going to cover existing debts.  

“As Paul (Lambert) has said, the Premier League have been very quick to help their clubs with testing. Why can't the EFL do that for us too? 

“The PFA will be part of the conversation as well. Unions are there to protect their members. We’ve seen how the teachers’ union has got involved for them.

“I also think there needs to be more clarity from the EFL on what it takes to postpone or fulfil a fixture. At the moment it's down to the clubs to make a decision and then they investigate. 

“It would be nice if there were clearer guidelines to follow there, but I do also understand the EFL want to deter clubs from abusing this and calling off games for other reasons."

Bryan Klug is in caretaker charge of Ipswich Town for tomorrow's game at Millwall. Photo: Steve Wall

Academy chief Bryan Klug was the third member of Ipswich Town's staff to test positive for Covid-19. Photo: Steve Waller - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

He continued: “No-one wants the season to end, we all want it to continue, but we also want it to be as safe as possible.

"When we’re talking about fans coming back into stadiums, unfortunately that’s going to have to take a back seat.  

“Would a two-week circuit break help? It’s helped us over the last two weeks to look at our own internal policies, so it may well help the league as well. 

“But it only works if everything outside of football works alongside that. Because you can catch it from the local supermarket, you can catch it anywhere. 

“We’ve followed all the procedures to the letter of the law. That obviously just proves that this virus is out to get you and it’s going to get you at will. 

"There are certain things you can't control. There have been clubs in the Premier League, who have some of the best medical facilities in the world, who have been affected and had to call games off.  

“So if it’s going to get you, it’s going to get you. It’s very difficult to hide away from." 

O'Neill added: “In my opinion this season could go a bit longer. The amount of players in League One who will be involved in the Euros, if they still go ahead, would be very small. So League One and Two could go past May if we needed too. 

“I’m not for cramming it all in and getting to a stage where teams are playing every couple of days if that’s not necessary. I think we should all agree to extend it for a few more weeks to make sure all the games can be played properly."

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