A political football is normally the cliche of choice when something that has nothing to do with football is booted back and forth between agencies attempting to deflect blame. These are far from normal times, however, and in the past week football became political even though its practitioners are now self-isolating and invisible. Season suspended or not, Premier League players rounded on by a health secretary struggling to equip his own nurses know exactly how it feels to get a public kicking.
There are, of course, wealthier institutions around the country than football clubs, and many millionaires and corporations that pay less tax. But even when out of sight, the recipients of the stratospheric salaries common in the Premier League – and to a lesser but still significant extent in the EFL – are clearly too obvious a target to be ignored when the rest of the population is being asked to make sacrifices.
Difficult as it is to defend the amounts of money leading players are paid – it should not take a national emergency to make anyone wonder whether £200,000 a week might be on the generous side for anyone not involved in life-and-death situations – the country as a whole is suffering through a lack of leadership, knowledge and foresight at the moment and football is no different. As Gary Lineker bravely pointed out, though the scorn Tottenham and Newcastle attracted by cutting the wages of their non-playing staff while protecting the incomes of players was completely justified, it was a decision that came from the boardroom rather than the dressing room.
Self-inflicted public relations damage does not get much more glaring, yet it was the players who bore the brunt of the resentment, not the billionaire owners. The players could do with someone to speak up for them on these occasions, someone to orchestrate a little positive PR, and not necessarily Gordon Taylor and the Professional Footballers’ Association, which like most trade unions is principally concerned with making sure the employers are not getting away with anything they shouldn’t.
Forcing pay cuts on the players, for instance, does not automatically free up money for the groundstaff or the caterers, much less for frontline health workers. It merely leaves more in the club account for directors to decide how to disburse.
The PFA stance has been to wait until it is possible for everyone to make concessions and move forward together, which sounds reasonable, except it seemed to prevent English clubs following the lead set by Barcelona and Juventus, among others, where pay cuts of up to 70% have already been agreed.
The understanding from the rest of Europe is that most players were quite happy to forgo large proportions of large salaries at a time when they are not in action and the rest of the country is struggling.
The likelihood is that players here feel the same. In fact there is already plenty of evidence through initiatives from Jordan Henderson, Harry Maguire and others that footballers were trying to make a contribution before Matt Hancock’s suggestion they needed to play their part.
It is not quite the case that their union was holding them back by insisting on full payment of contracts, though the PFA was painfully slow in coming out and saying what it might do to help, leaving Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend to voice the concern that players were being portrayed as villains.
Even as Premier League clubs voted to send financial assistance to the EFL, the National League and the NHS on Friday, there was a sense of having to be seen to be doing the right thing after too many days of failing to come up with anything constructive.
If, as expected, the players’ representatives agree in principle to the conditional cuts or deferrals of up to 30% being proposed, it will at least allow the national game a fig leaf of respect and ought to forestall any threat of windfall taxation, though the cynical argument that football only reacted once a gun was held to its head will still have some validity – that is the way it looks.
It would have been better to have the conversation about voluntary deferrals or charitable donations at the outset, as soon as it became clear players would be taking an extended break from their normal working pattern. As some of the wealthiest and most visible members of society it was inevitable and foreseeable that footballers might attract envy when many are suffering financial hardship, yet some of what we have seen was closer to scapegoating.
Laudable though Henderson’s intentions undoubtedly are, and useful as his network of captains might prove, it is a pity players’ efforts will now be viewed as reactions to bad publicity when there was plenty of time and opportunity for such high-profile figures to be more proactive. Fingers can be pointed at the union or the owners but the game as a whole needs to take stock at this point.
Footballers were already earning too much money before the game went into hibernation, it was only natural that their income would attract attention, and though some clubs did the honourable thing by their casual and matchday staff, a few others handled a delicate situation clumsily.
Lessons need to be learned for next time, though goodness knows it is to be hoped there is no next time. To give everyone from the government down a break from accusations of complacency or ineptitude, no one knew in advance how to work through something on this scale.
Mistakes were and are being made at every level, and the mistake we might still all be making is to assume that at the end of this period of unnatural quiet, a referee’s whistle will sound, the crowd will cheer and play will commence as usual.
That seems to be the picture Uefa has in mind, with a dogged insistence that all leagues and competitions must be concluded, but if the world has changed in the last couple of months football will have no option but to change with it.