On Friday morning when representatives of each of the Premier League’s 20 clubs log on for the most heavily trailed conference call of the sporting lockdown, the question will concern how rather than when.
How can the game be brought back into our lives as the Covid-19 crisis tramples over every aspect? How would it look logistically and ethically? The problem of timing is for another day and other people.
It is seven weeks since the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, became the first person in British football to test positive for the virus, even if it feels like seven years and, amid a terrible sense of foreboding, everything suddenly stopped. The show must go on or, at least, it must find a way to return; somehow, any how. It was the mantra of the time. The season must be completed and resolve has endured, that sense of bloody-mindedness, certainly from executives at the top of the Premier League.
There was and remains a good deal of reference to the integrity of the competition, a buzz phrase that shudders at the thought of an unfinished season and its repercussions, bringing to mind a fairness and purity around the topics of relegation and promotion.
But bubbling close to the surface has been a fear that failure to play on will lead to huge financial losses and characters who are accustomed to getting their way seeking recourse via the courts. It is easy to make out the principal drivers and they do not sit comfortably alongside each other. In one corner is medicine in the other money.
“This is a very dangerous situation,” Dr Michel D’Hooghe, the chair of Fifa’s medical committee, said on Wednesday. “It is a fight between health and economic values.” D’Hooghe has worked as the president of the Belgian Football Federation and Club Brugge. He knows both sides. Right now he is backing medicine and he says the season ought to end.
The greatest worry for Premier League clubs is that if it does, broadcasters, whose riches drive the whole shooting match, will demand refunds. The clubs are not as concerned about Sky and BT, having enjoyed a hugely fruitful partnership with the former in particular. It is the international companies that fund the overseas rights who may be more uncompromising.
It has been estimated clubs stand to lose around £50m each, the lion’s share from lost broadcast revenues, if the season is not completed. The breakdowns are different in the Football League, where gate money makes up a much greater percentage of turnover. Resuming behind closed doors would be economically crippling for each one, from the Championship leaders, Leeds, down.
At the top end the money is the TV, which is why there is a desire to screen as many of the remaining 92 matches as possible, even behind closed doors, which would damage the spectacle for the viewer. The host stadiums that are selected – expected to be neutral ones – would have to be broadcast compliant and not only because the cameras at such grounds also support VAR. St Georges’ Park, the national training centre, has been mentioned as a possible venue and the pitches there could be fitted with the requisite cameras, although this would be more challenging.
The conference call will discuss Project Restart, with the use of neutral stadiums set to cause conflict. Some clubs will be unhappy at the loss of home advantage. The national lead for football policing, Mark Roberts, said on Wednesday there could be “benefits of playing at a neutral, controlled venue both from health aspects but also minimising any disruption to the police, ambulance service and other functions”.
Consensus is difficult to gauge but it appears most would prefer closed doors to no action at all. Clearly, football without fans is rubbish but imperfect or least-bad solutions are demanded.
Hoped-for timeframes will be put forward, with clubs planning for a return to training on 11 May or 18 May before a possible restart on the weekend of 13-14 June with the domestic season to finish at the end of July but, as with everything, this opens up other problems. What will group training look like? Moreover, how to accommodate players who are out of contract after 30 June? Could contracts be extended on a short-term basis? Would players want that, knowing how an injury could jeopardise a planned move?
With money central to so much there have been accusations of clubs being guided by selfish agendas – for example, those above the relegation zone wanting the season to be annulled. But if it is all about the broadcast cash, surely there are solutions. Perhaps clubs could arrange loans from the TV companies secured against the solidity of future broadcast revenues. Maybe the broadcasters could be promised extra games next season.
It would be interesting to see how many clubs would remain committed to finishing the season under difficult circumstances if a way could be found to advance the money they might lose. Nobody wants to play without crowds. Nobody wants to risk spreading the virus.
The risks and the what-ifs will frame Friday’s talks, with a big one being the nightmare of a player or member of staff testing positive after the restart. This could mean quarantine for a club or clubs and the end of the competition.
At the heart of everything is testing. Players would have to be tested regularly, as would the few hundred others who attend the sealed-off matches, but how would that be delivered and how could a sterile environment be maintained? Nobody in the game wants to be seen to be taking away tests from frontline workers and there will be those who consider it crass that football intends to return while there are so many problems regarding testing in the UK.
In the end there is the knowledge that whatever happens on Friday, whatever common ground is found, it may count for nothing. What the government does next Thursday in terms of easing the lockdown or otherwise will shape the fate of the season. A prerequisite will surely be the relaxing of physical distancing because how could players challenge each other if the rest of the population had to remain two metres apart?
Football is doing all it can to prepare for what would be the most sentimental of reunions. The obstacles remain oppressive.