Another week and another blog post that by necessity has to focus on the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, the restrictions on football fans being able to return to stadiums (Spoiler Alert: not anytime soon!) and the impact that this increasingly looks like having on football. However, let’s start with the relatively good news, the confirmation that came earlier this week that Leyton Orient have been cleared to resume their fixtures after having to postpone the League Cup game at home to Tottenham and the League Two trip to Walsall. Well at least they were at the time of writing anyway, much to Mrs Football Nerd’s and my relief after struggling through a full fortnight without our regular Orient football fix. The oft-cited phrase about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone certainly resonated strongly in our house last weekend!
This is both the magic of football and the tragic nature of the circumstances in which we continue to find ourselves. At its very essence, even for hopeless football obsessives, football is a distraction, an alternate reality if you will, something that shouldn’t take up so much of our time, attention, focus or indeed hard-earned cash, but does. It gives us something beyond ‘normal life’(sic) upon which to concentrate our attention, which is proving even more important during these surreally depressing times.
The national lockdown in the spring and the associated suspension of football was just about survivable as we could speculate on when football would come back and we could all get back to normal. Increasingly as the weeks tick by and we head into autumn and the depths of the much-feared second wave of the pandemic, we begin to realise that it may never be how we remember it being. Football as we used to know and love it may never come back.
As the number of Coronavirus cases and the infamous ‘R rate’, which not many of us knew even existed prior to March, continue to surge across the country, and now that the number of people under local lockdown restrictions of some nature has reached 12.7 million in England alone, a quarter of the population; it seems likely that while Orient may have been the first they certainly won’t be the last club forced into isolation as a result of positive tests. We can only begin to guess at the disruption that may lie ahead for football in the coming months.
The weekend’s Premier League programme saw us once again revisiting the controversial reinterpretation of handball, which has so far led to six penalties being awarded already this season compared to none at the same stage last year. The one awarded against Joel Ward of Crystal Palace sparked criticism from Palace manager Roy Hodgson who called the decision “nonsense” and said the change in interpretation was “killing the game”; while former England striker turned pundit Alan Shearer, speaking on BBC’s Match of the Day, ranted: “It is wrong and it has to change. It is madness to give that as handball. Just go back to what it was years ago”.
There were two other controversial penalty awards last weekend which had managers, players and pundits alike spitting chips: firstly when Manchester United were awarded a penalty via our old friend VAR for handball by Brighton’s Neal Maupay, which was allowed to be taken after the final whistle as the incident had happened before referee Chris Kavanagh had blown for time; and then the following day when Tottenham’s Eric Dier was adjudged to have handled a ball that came at him from very close range despite facing the other way, yep you guessed it after VAR intervention.
Of course there are many of us who follow the Premier League that some months ago would have been up in arms (pardon the pun!) about yet more handball and VAR controversy at the top level, and I cannot argue against the fact that both are killing the game as a spectacle, but there are much deeper and graver concerns for the future of the sport.
Last week English Football League (EFL) chairman Rick Parry approached the Government for a bailout for clubs in the EFL to the tune of £250 million. After initially intimating that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were drawing up plans for rescue packages for as many as eight of the country’s highest profile sports, football included, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden made it abundantly clear over last weekend as to where he saw the majority (all?) of the funding coming from. In a television interview on Sunday, Dowden called for Premier League clubs to “step up to the plate” in order to provide financial support for EFL clubs during the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.
Matters have come to crisis point with the Government U-turn, announced last week, on allowing some fans back into stadiums from the 1st of October. Before that reversal, the EFL clubs had developed plans to muddle through the early season lockout largely through advanced season ticket revenue, but now with the prospect of fans being allowed back into stadiums not likely to be for the foreseeable future, or even at any point during the 2020/21 season, clubs are now very much teetering on the brink. As Parry put it: “some [clubs] are on the brink, some would have been on the brink without Covid. We’ve kept all of them intact so far but, yes, absolutely, some will be very worried”. Underlining a very real fear that unless a viable bailout package can be put in place some clubs may not make it out the other side.
However the nature of any likely support isn’t going to be akin to the £1.57 billion package of Government funds that was put in place to support the arts and heritage sectors, instead Dowden placed the ball very much in the Premier League’s court stating: “The direction is clear, we understand the Premier League needs to play its part. I’m in close consultation with them and I’m hopeful they will be able to reach a deal and provide that level of support.”
A meeting was convened last Tuesday without a resolution being reached on how much support could be made available. In a follow-up negotiation yesterday between Parry and Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters it seems to have become clear that negotiations remain at something of an impasse. One of the main sticking points for the Premier League seems to be the amount of money allegedly sloshing round the EFL’s top tier, with Championship club owners reportedly worth more than a combined £32 billion. The amount identified as needed for a bailout being just a small fraction of that combined wealth.
However as has been well-documented in the past, Championship clubs, for a significant part, are guilty of gross financial mismanagement over the past decade, with operating losses having more than doubled over the last five years from £282 million in 2014 to £603 million last year and some clubs spending 100% or more of their revenue on salaries. With arguably good reason, the Premier League may be reluctant to throw good money after bad to support clubs who were seemingly inevitably going off a cliff financially even before Covid, especially given the reported £1 billion loss by Premier League clubs since lockdown in March.
There appears to be more sympathy for clubs in Leagues One and Two who have nowhere near the financial backing of the clubs in the second tier, but rightly or wrongly the Premier League are seeking further progress in talks with the Government about fans being allowed to return to stadiums before committing a huge sum of money to the EFL. At the same time any rescue package from the Premier League is likely to come with strings attached such as: support for a liberal post-Brexit approach to work permits for players, adherence to their own rules on spending, a salary cap and other cost-cutting measures.
There was some good news with the Government committing to a £20 million support package for the National League which will allow their season to get underway this weekend, although even that has brought criticism from some MP’s within the Government who suggested that the Premier League should be picking up that tab while also calling on Premier League players to donate a week’s wages to the cause.
Quite where this stalemate leaves English football should be a cause for major concern for all of us who love the game. It feels somewhat inevitable that a major split in the structure lies ahead, what that may look like is anyone’s guess at this stage, but it is likely to be very different from what we used to know.