1 The show must go on
The plain, public argument for resuming competition was made in a statement released after the last meeting of the Premier League’s 20 clubs. “The clubs reconfirmed their commitment to finishing the 2019‑20 season,” it read, “maintaining integrity of the competition.”
Sporting integrity matters in an abstract way, that it’s better to complete something properly than have it decided by committee. More tangibly, there is also an argument for playing on so that European qualification can be decided on the field. Finally, Liverpool may only be two games from the title but it would surely be preferable for them to win their first championship in 30 years on the pitch.
But really, it’s about the money. According to a letter sent last month by the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, to the select committee of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the top flight faces “a £1bn loss, at least, if we fail to complete season 2019-20”.
As the main beneficiaries of the league’s lucrative broadcast deals, the competition’s biggest clubs stand to lose the most, perhaps as much as £100m each once failed sponsorship and absent matchday revenue is factored in.
Even for some of the biggest clubs in the world, these sums are stark and the losses may not be sustainable. It’s these concerns that are driving any return to play, even if they are not being aired publicly by the clubs.
2 If not now, then when?
Last week the Crystal Palace chairman, Steve Parish, made a new, more nuanced case for resumption.
In an article for the Sunday Times, he acknowledged the financial component of the argument. “Yes, it is partly about the money,” he wrote but also made clear there was “a list of things we cannot and will not do” in any return, such as increase the load on frontline services. He added: “We must put the health of [the players] and their families front and centre whenever we play again.”
Provided those safeguards were in place, and he believed they could be, Parish argued that football should play on, because waiting may not make things any better.
“Many of the same issues regarding player welfare, venues and closed-doors matches will exist [in the autumn],” he wrote. “The more we can work out now, the better chance we have.”
This was the positive case for resumption and one that may appeal to a number of clubs with less at stake than those at the top or bottom. An argument sides such as Burnley and Sheffield United, who have declared their enthusiasm for resumption in the right conditions, could perhaps fall behind.
3 Health comes first
A week later, however, Parish had refined his position. “We would be derelict in our duty if we didn’t find a way to try to bring the game back,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, but “it may prove beyond us. We have huge challenges in order to … complete this season”.
The Palace chairman was basically making the same argument but it sounded very different. In crossing the fine line between enthusiasm and caution in this debate it echoed the words of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard. “We’re all working in the same direction that we want it back,” he said this month, “but … we cannot risk the health of players and staff that are working in football – we can’t.”
Effectively the majority of the clubs in the division want the Premier League to restart if it can be made safe. The problem is that the virus will dictate when that is possible.
4 Not under these conditions
There are a group of clubs who are actively against restarting the competition as planned. Project Restart involves lots of challenges for securing medical safety but also requires that the 92 remaining matches are played at neutral grounds.
For some clubs, not by coincidence those at the bottom of the division, this attacks the very integrity that the resumption of play is supposed to protect.
How can it be fair for clubs to lose their home advantage at such a crucial stage of the season, they argue? The chief executive of Watford, Scott Duxbury, called it a “distorted nine-game mini league”.
Other clubs, speaking anonymously, have called such opinions sabotage, or an attempt to stonewall progress until it is too late to resume play.
According to Uefa, leagues must decide by 25 May if they are to resume. The clock is ticking.