The moral and financial debate of English football's return

Clarity has proved a rare commodity in England over the past couple of months.

With the government swinging haplessly from one from strategy to another, the population have been left in limbo, unsure as to their guidelines and restrictions. Football has not been immune from the disarray. 

Indeed, as we approach 10 weeks since the Premier League and EFL were postponed on March 13, the future of English football remains cloaked in mystery and uncertainty. 

Project Restart - the plan to resume the Premier League behind closed doors in June - initially seemed to be steering things back on track, but the project has since faced a number of significant roadblocks, chiefly those regarding player safety, with many now resigning themselves to the prospect of the season being declared null and void.

Here, VAVEL attempts to sift through the chaos and weigh up the pros and cons of a situation that will, inevitably, leave clubs, managers, and players feeling hard done by - whatever the solution.

Player safety

Ultimately, the Premier League's return will hinge upon the compliance of the players.

They have begun to return to training in small groups, and the testing - one of many scientific protocols being taken to limit the spread of disease on match day and during training - has already commenced, with the initial rounds throwing up encouraging results. Just six players tested positive.

Three of those people, however, were either players or staff at Watford, something which is only going to add to the ammunition of their talismanic striker, Troy Deeney.

Deeney, along with Newcastle United left-back Danny Rose, has been one of the outspoken opponents of Project Restart, voicing his dissent over a plan that he feels could put both him and his family in danger. He is also one of a number of Watford players that is refusing to return to training in light of the recent events.

"We're due back in this week. I've said I'm not going," he told Eddie Hearn and Tony Bellew on their Talk The Talk YouTube show. "It only takes one person to get infected within the group and I don't want to be bringing that home."

The comments drew many parallels with those of Rose, whose choice of words left no doubt as to his opinion on the matter: "I don't give a f*** about the nation's morale," he fumed to followers on an Instagram live. "People's lives are at risk."

The desire to protect their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families is completely understandable. After all, these are scary times, and footballers are humans.

But, at the same time, it isn't insensitive to point out the flaws with this mentality. The comments, although honest and well-intended, are clearly symptomatic of the misguided belief that, at some point in the near future, the risk of catching the coronavirus will be eliminated.

It's an idea that has distorted reality from day one. Football or no football, work or no work, until a vaccine is found (which could take years or may never be found), the probability of becoming infected is never going to fall to zero. Risk, instead, can only be mitigated.

It is also worth adding that footballers do not appear to be the type of people at the epicentre of this virus. Data suggests that the virus is predominantly a killer of older people with underlying health conditions. Yes, vulnerable staff could be putting their lives at risk on matchday, and yes, the death rate seems to rise significantly for those with an ethnic minority background, but, again, it falls back to the same question: should life be put on hold because of risk, or should we accept the risk as part and parcel of life?

Players have a duty to play for their clubs, and not just because of contractual stipulations. If players refuse to play, then football won't go ahead. If football doesn't go ahead, then broadcasters will demand hundreds of millions of pounds in TV rights money to be repaid, gate receipt will remain worthless, and sponsorship revenue will continue to be lost.

The deficiency will inevitably trickle down to players and staff, as clubs become unable to fulfill their salaries. Thousands, including the players, will lose their jobs.

In a wider context, too, the Premier League's economic importance can not be overstated. As the most financially successful league in the world, it generates billions in tax money every year for the government, employs over 10,000 people, and is one of the major drivers for tourism in England.

The latter is obviously irrelevant under the current travel bans, but the point remains clear: the country needs the Premier League back, and not just for the morale boost. 

Project Restart: the problems in its way

Frank Lampard, among others, has been open about his moral disagreement with Premier League footballers receiving tests before frontline health workers, and justifiably so.

It remains to be seen whether the testing of players will actively compromise the NHS's resources, but such an event would have indelible implications for the image of the sport as a whole.

When it comes to testing, one of the other pressing matters boils down to possible conflicts of interest. If a key player tests positive prior to a vital fixture but it is asymptomatic, will the club disclose the true nature of the player's condition if it prevents him from playing?

Another possible hindrance that remains unresolved is the debate concerning the location of the remaining Premier League fixtures. The police were initially reluctant to allow clubs to play at their home grounds due to the possibility of fans congregating outside the stadiums. They have since softened their stance, but are still at odds with the clubs who believe the loss of home advantage will hamper their chances of Premier League survival. 

Despite the fact that the Bundesliga seemed to be played out at a reasonable intensity upon its resumption, many in England are still reserving doubts as to the fitness levels of players for the mooted mid-June restart. The recent rule amendment permitting a fourth and fifth substitution will aim to ease the physical burden on squads, but some, such as Raheem Sterling, remain unconvinced:  "You can't come back in with one-and-a-half or two weeks [of training]. You'd need a full four to five weeks, especially if you're going to go back into competition."

The complications of a null and void in the Championship

While the Premier League ramps up its preparations for a June restart and League One and Two clubs finalise the abandonment of their seasons, in the second tier, the predicament is slightly more complex.

Following a meeting with the clubs on Wednesday 13 March, the EFL outlined its ambition for a June 12 restart in the Sky Bet Championship, with the season set to be played to a conclusion.  

In reality, though, the situation is not as clear-cut.

The complications lie not with the disapproval of players this time, but with the financial peril of the smaller clubs. And that's only part of the issue.

Given the current financial climate, some Championship clubs may be unable to cover the costs of testing and quarantined hotels, and some simply don't have the space to observe the necessary social distancing measures at their training grounds.

Another issue is that of expiring contracts. The use of loan players is particularly prevalent in the Championship, while many clubs have players who are out of contract on June 30. Many of the questions surrounding the legal ability to extend those contracts remain unanswered. 

The chances of the season being curtailed are beginning to look increasingly likely. And then comes the murky business of deciding outcomes.

It would be a huge injustice to deny the two clear frontrunners, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, a spot in the Premier League next season. The financial stakes of promotion are so high, especially for Leeds, whose 2018/19 financial accounts illustrated significant losses.

This all depends, though, on the teams coming down. Unless a bloated 22-team league is to be accepted for next season, there may be no promotion if relegation is decided against.

Broadcasters, however, are likely to oppose this. Scrapping relegation would render the rest of the Premier League season a meaningless affair, with Liverpool's title win effectively a formality.

In the case, then, that there is promotion to the Premier League on offer, and three clubs are relegated as usual, the focus then centres on the final promotion slot.

It's unlikely to be handed on a plate to 3rd place Fulham, as playoff fixtures usually generate large-viewing figures for broadcasters.  

Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston North End currently occupy the other traditional playoff slots. They appear obvious contenders in the battle for a spot in the promised land. 

However, this would neglect the likes of Bristol City, Millwall, Blackburn Rovers, and the other sides in close promixity to the playoff spots who would have otherwise fancied their chances during the run-in. Should their campaigns be ignored, legal action will most certainly be taken.

The debate is similar, if not more heated, down the other end of the table. Charlton Athletic currently reside in the relegation zone, but - prior to the postponement of the league - had only spent six days in the bottom three all season. Lee Bowyer's men are only two points adrift of Hull City, Wigan Athletic, and Middlesbrough, who are all on 41 points. This, again, is likely to come to a head in the courtroom. 

 

 

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