‘It was like you had someone else’s body’: Ben Godfrey and his long COVID-19 battle
Ben Godfrey, Everton
By Greg O'Keeffe and Patrick Boyland 4h ago 8
The ball broke and Leon Bailey sprinted towards the Everton goal.
The game was stretched — too stretched from the away side’s point of view — but as they chased a two-goal deficit, they left the Jamaican with vast swathes of open ground to exploit.
Ben Godfrey, the closest Everton defender, attempted to respond but his efforts were in vain. Where last season the £20 million signing from Norwich had impressed with his no-nonsense approach and recovery pace, on this occasion he simply had no answer.
Something felt different. Put together with other displays, this was not the Godfrey of last season; Everton’s young player of the season and a member of England’s provisional squad before the European Championship.
Little did supporters know that his absence for the opening four games of the season, shrouded in mystery at that point, came after he contracted COVID-19 days before the opener against Southampton.
The build-up to the new season had been unusually complicated for Everton.
New manager Rafa Benitez was keen to get off to a good start to keep lingering dissenters and sceptics at bay but star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin broke his toe days before the kick-off. Meanwhile COVID-19 swept around the camp, keeping a number of key players out of training.
Godfrey, who contracted the virus as plans for Southampton were being formulated and finalised, was forced to isolate until August 24, the day of Everton’s second-round Carabao Cup victory over Huddersfield. Allowed out for the first time, he joined up with his team-mates to make the trip to West Yorkshire, but was not risked in the 18-man squad.
The effects of the virus are still being felt months later.
Here is a still from that game against Villa. It must be said that the space afforded to Bailey puts Godfrey at a significant disadvantage. Any defender in this situation is automatically second favourite. Yet as the fastest and statistically one of the fittest players in the Everton squad, those witnessing the game live at Villa Park would have been forgiven for anticipating some kind of miraculous intervention.
It takes Godfrey a while to get up to speed and the gap never closes substantially.
When Bailey strikes at goal, the Everton defender is not in a position to make a challenge. The finish is emphatic.
There are other similar examples from the past couple of months. Moments when Godfrey has looked a shadow of himself.
While he has toughed it out in public, behind the scenes he has been challenged to his limits.
Those closest to him emphasise how the unpredictable nature of his symptoms have constantly undermined Godfrey’s efforts to reach peak fitness.
Although thought to be close to 70-80 per cent of his normal levels now, there have been times when he dipped much lower.
While he has been willing to continue to play through the problems, there have been alarming side effects; such as signs his heart had swollen — which have had to be closely monitored and affected his availability to train afterwards.
“He has felt at times like he’s vulnerable to just flop like a gassed boxer on the ropes during a game,” says one source. “He can’t control it. He is going into games knowing that at any moment his tank might just empty.
“Against Norwich he got the ball on the right, his body went limp and he just had to kick it out.”
Club doctors have been meticulous and ultra-safety conscious in their monitoring but with COVID-19 everyone is learning, to a degree, as they go along.
There have certainly been signs of consistent improvement; most notably his performance against Manchester United when he dealt well with Luke Shaw’s forward raids and occasions when he was in a two-versus-one situation with Andros Townsend further up the field.
“After the match Darren Fletcher said, ‘If that’s Ben at 70 per cent then imagine what he’ll be like when he’s 100 per cent again’,” added the source.
There was an opportunity for further rest during the international break which has helped, but Godfrey himself told the Everton website it has been a long and worrying road to near recovery.
“The first couple of games were awful — my breathing — and I found myself fatiguing really early on in games, even after a single sprint when normally I’d back myself to be up and down,” he said.
“I’d be blowing in the first few minutes — it was mad… you can’t describe it unless you’ve experienced it. It was like you had someone else’s body. I’d make a sprint and it’d feel like I’d played 88 minutes, even though it was five minutes into a game.
“The past couple of games I’ve felt a lot better and more or less back to myself now, which has been good.”
As has been the case at Everton, academics believe that a player’s COVID-19 recovery journey needs to be carefully managed by a “multidisciplinary team” — with important direction given by the club’s medical staff when it comes to safe return to competition.
Dr James Malone, is a senior lecturer in coaching science at Liverpool Hope University, and a specialist when it comes to training load and recovery monitoring.
Dr Malone says a lack of scientific data around COVID-19 recovery for elite players means there’s still uncertainty and ambiguity around best practice.
He explains: “The Premier League is the most demanding league in world football. A player’s recovery from COVID-19 depends on lots of different factors, including the severity of the symptoms. As yet we need more scientific data to form a definitive recovery pathway.
“But what I would say is that we know enough to have a ‘return to play’ protocol that all clubs can follow. And a player’s recovery from COVID-19 has to be directed by the medical team, particularly in the early phases of recovery. It cannot be left to the opinions of a coach or player, even if a player is saying, ‘I feel fine. I’m fully recovered. I’m good to play this weekend’.”
Dr Malone points to crucial “return to play guidance” which has been issued by the English Institute of Sport, SportScotland Institute of Sport, Sport Wales Institute of Sport and the Sport Institute of Northern Ireland.
It works in a similar fashion to concussion protocols, giving set “graduated return to play” markers, including rest periods, following a player reporting COVID-19 symptoms. There is, for example, a minimum 10-day rest period from the onset of symptoms.
Godfrey claps the Everton fans after the West Ham defeat (Photo: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)
Dr Malone adds: “Clubs have never had to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude before and there was a little bit of guesswork that went into player recovery at the beginning.
“But the Home Country document is a key document, giving a real framework on how players can return to play. The other important factor here for clubs to consider is that a player will likely be taking medication that masks COVID-19 symptoms, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. A club needs to be mindful of that when making any decisions on return to training or match play.”
Dr Malone says clubs may use subjective “return to play” questionnaires, which quizzes a player about how he or she is feeling, as part of getting them back to play and competition.
These questionnaires can be combined with objective measures of athlete monitoring, such as heart rate, to provide a holistic picture of how well the athlete is recovering from the virus.
Dr Malone argues: “A questionnaire requires a player to be 100 per cent honest with how they’re feeling. With lots of other factors at stake — including fear of losing a place in the team — there’s lots of reasons why that questionnaire might show bias.
“And this is why it’s so important to use these in combination with objective measures of recovery and training load. During the early phases, the recovery and graduated return to play will be overseen by the medical and sports science staff. As the athlete progresses back to team training and competition, it’s important the support staff are also closely monitoring the response to load and making appropriate modifications in line with the coaching staff.
“Heart rate monitoring will, in my opinion, be a really important measure of recovery, alongside Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) scales.
“It tells you how much a player is exerting themselves for a given load. If, for example, they’re doing a 20-minute cycle in the early phase of return and their heart rate rises higher than expected then they’re probably not quite over COVID-19 just yet, no matter what they’re telling you.
“COVID-19 essentially needs to be treated the same way as a medium-to-long term injury rehab, in that it needs to be monitored day-by-day with continual load adjustment to make sure a player isn’t pushing themselves too hard, too soon.”
The positive news is that reported COVID-19 cases have, by and large, been mild in football players — although some have been badly affected such as Newcastle United’s Karl Darlow and Neil Etheridge of Birmingham City.
Dr Malone adds: “One thing we know from public health research is that if you’re physically active and have a low body fat it appears to minimise severe COVID-19 symptoms from kicking in.
“Many of the people who end up on ventilators in hospitals are, generally, unfit. So it helps to be an athlete. If you follow the protocols, protect the player bubbles and support medical teams to make the correct decisions, then COVID-19 recovery is certainly manageable.”
It would seem Everton and Godfrey have managed the worst of it with expertise and determination.
Now both must hope the fastest man at Finch Farm can get his engine back to full throttle.