First Daniel Levy and Tottenham caused ructions across not only the sporting world but also the wider scale British media when they became the first club brave/ wise/ foolish enough (please delete as appropriate!) to announce that they were going to cut the salaries of all non-playing staff by 20% and put them on furlough “where appropriate” in order to cope with the financial challenges brought by the Coronavirus pandemic and the cessation of football until at least the end of this month.
Runaway table-toppers Liverpool very nearly followed suit with 200 of their staff before an eleventh hour U-turn saw them suggest: “We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week to announce that we intended to apply to the coronavirus retention scheme and furlough staff due to the suspension of the Premier League football calendar, and are truly sorry for that”. Thankfully the fierce criticism levelled at the club’s ownership and Chief Executive Peter Moore, most specifically by the Spirit of Shankly Supporters’ Union, local MP’s Dan Carden and Ian Byrne as well as the Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson, forced the late rethink.
Then Health Secretary Matt Hancock singled out Premier League footballers telling them emphatically: “Given the sacrifices people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS, who have made the ultimate sacrifice and gone into work and caught the disease and have sadly died, I think the first thing Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution; take a pay cut and play their part.” Rather unsurprisingly his ‘suggestion’ drew vitriol and anger from the football world with Wayne Rooney (the new thinker and commenter with his own column in the Times it seems!), Sean Dyche, Gary Neville and Gary Lineker to name just four.
It is an easy, lazy even, stereotype to paint Premier League footballers as overpaid, egotistical, greedy, arrogant people who are only interested in their social media profiles, even if undoubtedly in some / several cases (waves to Paul Pogba and Kyle Walker as two high profile examples!) there is more than an element of truth to that. However what Mr Hancock seems to be forgetting is that whether anyone deserves what they get paid or not, and frankly who really deserves a six-figure salary per week, they have got to where they are through hard work, dedication, sacrifice and no question a healthy dollop of good fortune. It is also worth pointing out that Premier League footballers make up just two per cent of all those who earned over £1 million this year. Where are the calls for musicians, movie stars bankers, CEO’s, other sportspeople etc etc to contribute?
The phenomenon of the mega-paid footballer is actually only relatively recent, back in 1961 when a campaign led by Jimmy Hill, former player and future television pundit, brought about the abolition of the maximum wage it seemed to be agreed and welcomed that football players should be rewarded appropriately for their talent. Through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s even a relatively lengthy career at the top of the game wasn’t enough to set a player up for life. Then along came Sky TV and the launch of the Premier League, quickly followed by the Bosman ruling which effectively placed the power truly in players’ (or at least their agents’) hands as it effectively made them free agents and able to negotiate with any interested club once they had seen out their contracts with no transfer fee required in recompense.
The Premier League and general football boom which attracted players from across the globe to the English league has seen astronomical growth in the revenues that clubs are able to generate and of course the salaries that the top players are able to command. All was rosy with regard to the financial health of Premier League clubs while the money continued to flow until the day when it was turned off.
According to recent reports all but five of the Premier League clubs who remained in the division after 2018/19 drew less than half of their total income from television. To put that another way for 12 of the 17 clubs the proportion of their total income that came from broadcasting ranged from 53% (Tottenham) to a quite frankly frightening 80%+ (Crystal Palace, Burnley, Watford, Bournemouth). If there are no games to show why would the TV companies continue to pay clubs? Where would that leave the players? One suspects that meticulous financial management and planning may not have been things that were especially high on your average Premier League player’s agenda. Until now that is.
Seemingly unbeknownst to Mr Hancock at the time he was publicly calling them out, a large group of Premier League players were finalising the details of the #PlayersTogether initiative which has the stated aim of raising funds for NHS charities. While the Premier League itself announced an immediate commitment of £20 million to the NHS communities, families and vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League the picture is even more bleak with the future of clubs from the EFL and National League alarmingly uncertain. As it should, the Premier League has already committed £125 million to support clubs lower down the football pyramid, the fear for all involved is whether that will be enough?
In order to keep us all going during these unprecedented times we have to believe that football will return, the key question is how it will look if/ when it does? Adopting an uber-optimistic point of view maybe the crisis will change it for the better, maybe it will force a rethink of the game as a whole and the realisation that charging £100 to get in, revising the fixture list at the drop of a hat to suit television and fleecing as much as possible out of fans is no longer sustainable and what actually matters most is the survival of the game and all its associated clubs.