2020 has been a year like no other. An unfolding emergency in a far-off land snowballed into the greatest public health crisis in living memory with Covid-19 affecting every one of us in different ways. No-one was exempt, no industry unaffected and no part of life unaltered by ‘the invisible enemy’. Even football, a part of life that seems able to transcend the everyday, has felt the full, crippling force of coronavirus and if something is not done quickly, the game we love could be forever changed.
In order to better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic affected football I have recorded the major dates and announcements made by governing bodies as the crisis panned out.
- 31st Dec. 2019 – China alerts WHO of new cases of “viral pneumonia”
- 11th Jan. 2020 – First Covid-19 death
- 13th Mar. 2020 – Premier League announce postponement indefinitely.
- 17th Mar. 2020 – UEFA announce Euro2020 will be postponed until 2021.
- 11th Apr. 2020 – Revealed at least 3 Premier League clubs to use the furlough scheme.
- 17th Jun. 2020 – Project restart underway in the Premier League with Aston Villa hosting Sheffield United.
- 5th Aug. 2020 – Arsenal plan to make 55 staff redundant following financial impact of Covid-19.
- 23rd Aug. 2020 – Champions League final marks the end of the longest season on record.
- (as of) Sep. 2020 – “get fans back” petition has over 183,000 signatures.
In just 6 short months, the entire English footballing infrastructure collapsed and emerging from the ashes was half a game, a skeleton if you will. The very raw basis for existing but without the heart or soul of what makes people fall in love with football in the first place. I am, of course, talking about fans.
This is not to discredit any of the incredible work that was undertaken to ensure football could return at all. No-one in the footballing world has anything other than the utmost respect for the authorities involved in all ‘project restarts’ globally. There is, however, a shadow of doubt looming larger and larger as the days go by that football simply isn’t economically viable until fans are allowed back into stadiums.
A large part of the recent outcries follows the UK government’s decision to allow 3000 people into the Royal Albert Hall during the Christmas period. This seems a far cry from the strict ‘rule of 6’ and ‘2 metre social distancing’ measures that been enforced nationwide. In context, should plans go ahead and the full 3000 admitted, the RAH would be operating at 56% capacity. This is deemed perfectly acceptable, but Tranmere Rovers are unable to let 1000 spectators into their stadium. This would be at a capacity of 7%. Not to mention Prenton Park is an outdoor venue and the RAH is not. According to the current understanding of the virus, transmission rates are higher indoors – one of the reasons, at the time of writing, the 10pm enforced closure time has been imposed on pubs and restaurants. The decision to pack an indoor venue over Christmas only serves to confuse and frustrate a population that’s patience has waned far enough.
Tranmere’s vice-chairman Nicola Palios (NicolaPalios) took to Twitter to vent her frustration “someone please explain the logic”. Palios isn’t alone in her hunger for answers.
Football has had a target on its back since the pandemic began with Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously suggesting Premier League players should front some of the financial burden that is being placed upon clubs themselves. Hancock did not reserve this policy idea for any other industry. This strained the relationship football fans have with aspects of the current government even further.
But realistically what could the future of football look like should the terraces remain empty?
According to reports, the English game (all divisions) could be losing as much as £100m every month. This is obviously unsustainable for any industry and like with most things in life, it will end up hitting those at the bottom of the pile the hardest.
The Premier League has benefitted from increased broadcasting rights for the league’s 3 broadcasting partners (Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime). This has allowed some revenue to be made through televised games while fans are still unable to return however, the same cannot be said for the lower leagues. The Championship have enjoyed a few televised matches but aside from the Play-Offs, the lower divisions have been almost entirely neglected.
The situation has been both referred to as “at breaking point” and “crumbling” by owners of EFL clubs which further demonstrates the severity of the current situation. Football365.com created a pros and cons list of 6 ideas of how to save the football industry and is well worth a read. It, among other things, puts into perspective how nuanced the issue of potential bailouts are – a typical go-to solution.
One thing is for certain, clubs at the top of the pyramid, who enjoy all the benefits of being there, are being supported by, at the very least, 72 other clubs not mentioning all non-league football. Should the bricks begin to fall, the cushioned seats at the top would begin to feel much less comfortable. Domestic cups would cease to function if smaller teams are abandoned as there will be no-one left to play. You can hardly capture the ‘magic of the FA cup’, when the biggest upset is one big club beating another. Football in its most pure, unadulterated form would be left severely lacking in thrill.
Does this not then place a moral imperative on those at the top to support the bottom?
Burnley manager Sean Dyche faced backlash when he conveyed his view that lower division clubs should not necessarily be supported by Premier League sides. He used an ill-advised comparison with hedge fund managers “every hedge fund manager that is incredibly successful, are they going to filter down to hedge fund managers that are not so successful?”. Criticism was levelled at Dyche as his statement lends credence to a cold truth football fans don’t really want to admit, football is a business.
There should be an expectation that football is better than that. For many, it isn’t just a business, it’s a way of life and the fans hold on to the belief that their clubs echo their feelings when unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. I feel, possibly arrogantly, government bailouts should be reserved for morally bankrupt, corrupt institutions like the banking sector in 2008. In this instance, they are inherently shameful and would symbolise the Premier League’s elitist attitude, wiping their hands of the very infrastructure that props them up. Football is a sport for everyone, and we should champion the belief that it can be saved by us and us alone.
I would stress the idea of a bailout is not in itself shameful, far from it. Many sectors are facing almost wholescale economic downturn and government funding to keep them afloat is vital. Pubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms, theme-parks and libraries to name but a few are facing the full force of an economic downturn of potentially 14% by the end of 2020. Swiftly depleting government resources should be reserved for these industries that need it the most.
The point with football is broader. Pubs are not funded by private billionaires. The cost of running a gym isn’t footed by an investment consortium or backed by an entire regime. The football business is unique in the amount of wealth held at the top. The hope, in these times, is that said wealth is able to trickle down and support contemporaries for that, purely, is what other football clubs are.
As of July 2020, Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Bury have all entered administration with Bury already being dissolved. A combined 369 years of history teetering on the precipice from financial mismanagement. The question is, without action now, how many years of history will be lost from Covid?
I feel, the most obvious solution to an admittedly complex problem is a systematic funding package provided by those clubs at the top who are able to cope with the Covid-19 crisis more comfortably to those who are struggling to remain afloat. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before either, history points to several occasions where fans have come to the rescue of their clubs so is it so much of a stretch to ask clubs and owners, who’s financial might greatly eclipsis that of the heroic fans, to step up and save an industry?
In the current climate, all that most of us are looking for is clarity but that seems to be the one thing that’s forever out of reach. Many look to football to forget the mundane and even miserable nature of life at the moment but even the wonderful escapism that football is cannot be relied upon anymore. We need football to remain on the pedestal that we have held it upon for years.