One of, if not the most frustrating things about the suspension of football due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of life as we once knew it, is perhaps the uncertainty of what football might look like when (if?) it comes back. This is especially true for those of us who are used to investing not insignificant amounts of our time and money into following teams below the rarefied heights of the Premier League and to a lesser extent the Championship.
While followers of the elite of English football have been able to adapt back to the schedule of watching our teams’ matches on an even more regular basis thanks to the success of “Project Restart”, albeit with somewhat of a false atmosphere being forced to watch matches on TV with only piped-in crowd noise to make it seem slightly less surreal than it actually is. Those of us who also (or solely in the majority of cases) follow teams from below the top two tiers in England have found ourselves in a football-less void for the best part of four months.
Suffering badly from not being able to go and watch our beloved Leyton Orient since March, Mrs Football Nerd and I took the plunge this week and registered our interest for Orient season tickets for the 2020/21 campaign this week without even knowing when or even how the season will start. Our decision was based more on the needs of the club who, like all others from the third tier down, have been deprived of the lifeblood of matchday revenue since Boris announced the UK was going into lockdown.
We have been reassured about the future of the club through the Q&A sessions that Nigel and Danny have hosted over recent weeks (Football Nerd Orient Ramblings – Who knows what the future holds for football as we know it, but Nigel and Danny provide some reassurance for Orient fans.) there are however some very real concerns for the future of football as a whole. Following on from the tragic demise of Bury last summer, last week we saw Wigan Athletic go into administration, while rumours continue to abound about the financial sustainability of other clubs including: Oldham, Southend United and Bolton who survived only by the skin of their teeth last summer. While none of those situations were directly caused by the suspension of football due to the pandemic, they nevertheless further highlight the precarious state of the finances in the ‘football business’, even before clubs had to cease playing matches.
Already we have seen Premier League clubs having to adapt their finances to cope with the loss of matchday revenue despite continuing to benefit from the television income which at that level outweighs matchday revenue. In Leagues One and Two and into Non-League there are relatively very small or no TV deals to fall back on. The inability to play matches behind closed doors, at least until next season means that clubs have had to operate in a bizarre kind of suspended animation with very little money coming in. Furloughing staff, cutting costs as much as possible and releasing players can only go so far, ultimately the survival of clubs can only come when the turnstiles are open once again. When that might be is anyone’s guess though.
Other than to declare the season (highly controversially) complete with teams being declared champions, promoted and relegated on a Points Per Game basis, the EFL has been noticeable by its silence on when teams in the third and fourth tier might be able to resume playing. Let alone when they might be able to do so in front of supporters.
Speaking at the beginning of May in an appearance before the Department for Culture Media and Sport Rick Parry, former Chief Executive of Liverpool and current Chairman of the Football League, suggested that a “£200 million hole” will exist in the finances of EFL clubs by September. While Huddersfield Town owner Phil Hodgkinson suggested recently that around “50 or 60” clubs were in danger of going bust if supporters were not allowed to attend fixtures next season, and Salford City co-owner Gary Neville revealed his fear that: “there will be clubs considering going into administration in the next three to four months, basically just to save themselves… Everybody’s looking down at their own feet and they’re not seeing the carnage that’s coming economically in the next three to four months.” Worrying stuff indeed!
At the risk of clutching at the straws of optimism, maybe the financial crisis facing football might cause some form of reboot. If, or to keep up the positive thoughts when, football in the lower leagues and non-league comes back might it prove more attractive to people hit hard in the pocket by the resultant financial crisis after the lockdown? Will fans eschew being fleeced by the uber-rich Premier League clubs and instead seek out their local side, whatever level they play at, and invest their time, energy and money in that instead? It was already starting to happen as people simply couldn’t afford the associated costs of what they could watch for the most part on TV. Might true football fans prefer being involved with a proper football club rather than a commercially focused business that exists for the barely disguised intention of generating as much cash as possible for foreign billionaire owners (Hi Mr Kroenke!).
For now though we have to continue to live in some form of limbo with the blind faith that football as we know it will pull through, that as many clubs as possible will survive and that one day we will all be back doing what we love the most, watching our clubs play in the grounds that we have all been missing so incredibly much. Hell, we might even be able to go back to our regular haunts for a pre-match pint…socially distanced of course!