After the unprecedented decision on Friday to postpone professional football for three weeks, a senior Premier League club executive spoke for the country, as it contemplated the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which seemed suddenly to have become overwhelming: “I feel that we were paying attention to this for weeks, then in just one day it has engulfed us.”
Football, like all sports – all industries, the whole of society – is reeling. It is still premature to ask for certainty about what will happen and all the questions are tendered with an acknowledgement there are many more important problems for the country to consider first.
Nonetheless, the realisation has dawned on many senior football people that matches are very unlikely to resume on the provisional dates pencilled in, Friday 3 April for the Football League, the following day for the Premier League. The leagues’, the FA’s and Uefa’s official positions are to hope their competitions can be completed, but the course of the virus is not expected even to peak until May or June, so playing at the start of April looks impossible.
Uefa will hold its teleconference on Tuesday with all 55 of Europe’s national football associations, the European Club Association, European leagues and the international players’ union, Fifpro, when Euro 2020 is expected to be postponed.
The Premier League has scheduled a meeting of clubs on Thursday when serious discussions will be held over what on earth happens next.
Those who run the sport are picking their way through this unmapped, dark and rapidly shifting terrain as gingerly, daily, step by step, as everybody else is having to in their own lives. The Premier League and EFL moved in barely an hour on Thursday night from saying that, following government advice, this weekend’s matches would be played as normal, to receiving news of Mikel Arteta’s positive diagnosis for Covid-19 and cancelling all matches for three weeks.
Regardless of the official position, senior people were very quickly contemplating the likelihood that no more football will be played for months and this season may not be completed.
The postponement was not quite about protecting public health, as the government advice remained that matches could be played and the risk of contagion among crowds was not yet too strong. It was the Arteta diagnosis, leading to the self-isolation of the Arsenal players, and the similar self‑isolation of other clubs’ players and staff, that led to the conclusion that playing had become impossible.
A Premier League club executive, who did not want to be named given the acute sensitivities of this crisis, said sports scientists’ advice is that a player needs one day of training for every day of isolation before they can be match fit. So the advisory 14-day isolation doubles to 28 days out of action. It appears close to impossible for squads, managers, coaching and other staff to operate at full strength as the virus spreads, peaks and runs its course. The chief executive, like other senior figures, believes it is “almost certain the league will finish at this point”.
Even if Uefa vacates the month of Euro 2020, from the 12 June scheduled first game in Rome to the 12 July final at Wembley, the idea of stretching the season into the summer and beyond is more complicated than it looks. Players’ contracts run to 30 June so the idea of carrying on with squads after that is described as so fraught as to be almost impossible.
The question of how to decide the title, promotion and relegation, Champions League qualification places, if the season ends now, moved in days from an interesting hypothetical to a genuine practical issue. West Ham’s Karren Brady, who wrote in Saturday’s Sun that the season should be declared null and void, is not the only Premier League club executive advancing that as a solution. A director of another club, who did not want to air his thoughts as publicly, said that while clubs could still garner enough points to change their positions, none will want to accept a disadvantage, especially given the huge sporting and financial gap between the Premier League and Championship.
Scrapping the season is the only solution that avoids a descent into litigation by those who would lose out if current places are converted into permanence, he said.
Another executive said they could do that, but avoid rancourous battles with a more creative solution: reward the winners but reprieve the losers. If the season needs to be considered finished at this stage, Liverpool, 25 points ahead at the top, would be awarded the title they have waited 30 years to reclaim and nobody could justifiably argue. Leeds and West Brom should go up, he said, but no club be relegated and the Premier League could play next season with 22 clubs.
Those in the promotion places in Leagues One and Two and the National League should be promoted and the numbers made up by none going down. The leagues could readjust their numbers with more clubs relegated over the next couple of seasons. Those in play-off places could legitimately argue they may have made it to automatic promotion, but none would suffer an actual major loss.
These scenarios are so speculative as to be the private thoughts of people still stunned by this nightmare event, but discussions will solidify this coming week. As for the financial hit, it will be unavoidable if the season does not finish. Sky and BT Sport, whose holding position is not to give subscribers refunds while this remains a short postponement, would have to do so if the season is cancelled. The broadcasters are thought to have the contractual right to withhold multimillions from the leagues, although given their longstanding relationships and the nature of this crisis, the leagues would be hopeful of an accommodation. It has not yet been made clear even to the clubs if the leagues have insurance to cover the loss of broadcasting income in these extraordinary circumstances.
Some clubs do have “business interruption” insurance to cover them for the loss of matchday revenues, but this is thought to become less common down the pyramid. Lower division Football League clubs, which rely on ticket income and are more financially fragile, are considered most at risk of falling into difficulties. The government has been made aware of this national sport’s vulnerabilities and there is some hope that public money could provide a safety net. But, really, after a decade of austerity and underfunding of the NHS, everybody knows the government has many more urgent priorities and attending to football’s financial ailments will not be top of the list.