There are two parallel worlds right now. The first is those in the heart of this crisis. The Prime Minister fighting for his life. The heroic out-of-retirement doctors going back and not returning. The underpaid nurses leaving behind families. The care workers, the bus drivers, the victims – those final breaths surrounded by ventilator machines and masks instead of wives, husbands and children. The news. The three lecterns, the Skyping journalists, the sheer numbers lost – they start to become almost meaningless when they get so high.
The second world is the rest of us. The lucky ones. Untouched directly – so far. Each with our own petty lockdown frustrations. Zooming permanently out-of-shot parents, dodging joggers who hurtle round blind corners, the endless washing up. Eye-rolling at people out in parks complaining about other people who are out in parks.
And in the middle of all of it is football just not quite getting it right. As someone put it so perfectly the other day, football being used as, well, a political football – amplified even more than normal by social media as we have nothing to do but scroll, refresh, scroll, refresh until our allotted outside time. Twitter bios updated to read “Proud Dad, amateur virologist, keen interest in Football Finance specifically in times of a Global Pandemic”. Everyone is losing at the moment. The Football Association, the Premier League, the EFL, the broadcasters, the players, the fans. Some maybe more than others, but no one benefits.
This is the weirdest and most complex situation of our lifetime, none of us know what is going to happen – and that includes owners, players, broadcasters, MPs … all of us. Surely we are all going to get it wrong at some point. That doesn’t mean giving people a free pass but it does mean patience, flexibility and understanding: three words seemingly absent from the debate.
Until a month ago I would have guessed a reverse furlough was something Jos Buttler might pull out in the IPL. Liverpool’s about-turn appears correct. Is it too simple to suggest that every pound the government puts into furlough is taken away from purchasing or building ventilators or PPE equipment? Probably. But it’s another pound the government won’t have.
Liverpool are a business with rich owners and not too many staff – they can afford it, in a way that perhaps Norwich and Bournemouth can’t. They deserve credit for changing their mind. It’s OK to screw up and admit your mistake. If – as some seem desperate to see – you want a league table of who deserves praise right now then they finish below Leeds and the Manchester clubs and above Tottenham and Newcastle. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. They no longer have the government’s money. Park that and let’s move on to the next thing.
The question about whether it’s fair for some clubs to furlough when others don’t appears legitimate. And where do you draw the acceptable line – above or below Newcastle? The answer is more complex. It is going to be different for every club in the pyramid. There won’t be a line. Some League Two clubs won’t need to; some Premier League clubs will.
And what of Spurs? You have to hand it to them for continuing their dismal form even when football has completely stopped. Furloughing staff while players run arm in arm in a park in Barnet. Even former players (Kyle Walker) and players who haven’t joined yet (Jack Grealish) are getting involved in damaging the brand.
Joe Lewis is a billionaire. Daniel Levy is paid millions of pounds. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust put out a very sensible and measured statement asking for an explanation, and followed up saying, “Do not further damage the club’s reputation, listen to your fans.” Surely there was a meeting where Spurs weighed up both options. Now is the time to be crystal clear – if stadium debt, or whatever, is an issue, then be open about it.
Some fans have threatened to give up on their club. Is that even possible? Could you give up on your football team? Surely the subconscious will take over when Hugo Lloris leads them out for their next Premier League game behind closed doors on a training ground in the Midlands?
And what about the broadcasters? They are due £762m back if the season isn’t completed. Do they need that money? All of it? Straight away? With no live sport, their subscription numbers will decrease, not to mention the loss of advertising revenue and sponsorship around live games. Everyone loses.
And what of the players? The last few days have made us realise that they might actually be like a large group of real humans – different, impossible to cover with just one label. Most with good intentions, engaged, thoughtful and in touch. A few less so. And while thousands of people who aren’t being asked to give up their wages ask footballers to give up theirs, surely it’s OK for those footballers to at least spend a bit of time working out exactly where their money might go.
Of course at the very moment footballers seemed to be winning the PR battle, Kyle Walker picked a pursuit completely unachievable while maintaining physical distancing. But others, like Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford, are going above and beyond. Footballers leading the way. It’s refreshing.
The truth is that football – like the rest of society – is struggling to work out how to proceed. So many vested interests, all wanting to do the right thing, but trying to protect themselves at the same time, which is probably what we’re all doing right now.
Perhaps I am the only hypocrite. Because while I’ve tweeted Spurs telling them not to take the government’s money, I’ve just bought an exercise bike from a tax-avoiding delivery company. I despair at those stockpiling, but when there was no hand sanitiser three weeks ago I ordered 10 bottles online that have just arrived. (I will give most of them away). We are all going to get things wrong.
And football is no different. Perhaps the key is to realise that some will get more help than others, that it won’t be exactly fair, and no one will get it right all of the time. It never was and they never did.