LIVERPOOL and Leeds United are both chasing long-time causes – the Premier League trophy and promotion from the Championship respectively. Finally, in 2019-20, both clubs looked to be on track to achieve their objectives, until a major obstacle recently appeared on the horizon. The Coronavirus lockdown could, ultimately, force the UK government and Football Association to abandon the current campaign and with that, the hopes of a number of major clubs could be dashed.
Throughout the football structure, from Premier League to non-league, the teams chasing success will be mightily angry that their efforts could amount to nothing, but at the same time, clubs that currently look doomed will be reprieved from relegation. Karren Brady, the vice-chairperson of struggling West Ham United has suggested making 2019-20 “null and void”. While clubs like West Ham will be relieved, the financial disaster that will emerge from complete abandonment will impact almost every club outside the Premier League.
It is not a cast-iron certainty that all 91 Premier/Football League clubs will come through this crisis intact, therefore the Football Association (not the government) should consider implementing a fighting fund to bail-out clubs that cannot withstand cashflow crises.
Although “behind closed doors” is another solution, if the suspension is prolonged, the extension of the season will not suit some smaller clubs who run on a tight cash projection. Non-league clubs, who invariably run on a 40-week budget, will not appreciate a longer campaign. Furthermore, the virus does not discriminate, so competing with affected squads creates competitive issues.
Football has always had a special place in the structure of society, hence during the two world wars it continued in some shape or form. In 1939-40, Blackpool started the season with three straight wins and topped the Football League Division One table. The day after their third game, September 3 1939, war was declared and the league was put into hibernation until 1945 and football carried on through a series of regional leagues. Blackpool’s finest hour that never was.
After the initial panic of lockdowns, suspended air travel and quarantine, football should resume, although given the politics, decisions will not be made quickly to restore order. It should not surprise anyone if nobody has the resolve to crank the starting handle once more. The 2020 European Championships look destined for rescheduling and even the Olympics could go the same way. With pan-European competitions also in the mix, a coordinated response has to be the only way forward.
Ending the campaign with a full stop, in other words with incomplete programmes, would be an unsatisfactory way to determine champions and promotion and relegation issues. While those clubs at the summit will feel aggrieved their records will not get recognised, a league could be compiled after each club has played each other at least once.
For some league leaders around Europe, it will not be tragic if they miss out on a title, even if they will feel persecuted – regular collectors of silverware such as Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Barcelona, Dinamo Zagreb, Ferencvaros, Olympiacos, Ajax, Porto, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Olimpia and Shakhtar Donetsk. But for clubs like Liverpool, Turkey’s Istanbul Basaksehir and Switzerland’s St. Gallen, the prospect of a lost title will be very painful.
The Coronavirus crisis has shown us Bill Shankly’s claim that football is far more important than life and death is no longer an appropriate reference point. The virus is a matter of life and death, not just to the unfortunate people who come down with the illness, but also to the survival of clubs who will be deprived of vital income. In fact, the global economy is seriously under threat and could dip into a full-blown recession that may be every bit as damaging as 2008.
But after just one blank weekend, it is clear the absence of football has left millions of people feeling unfulfilled, lost and unoccupied. Football’s place in the calendar of life, its ability to mark time and its role as flag-bearer for the concept of “the weekend” has been disrupted.
There’s little doubt that football has been elevated out of all proportion and has become like a drug for the masses. We are not talking about a recent phenomenon, there are supporters in every ground that can claim half a century of loyal patronage to their local club. It’s a habit that we’ve all succumbed to.
Like the virus itself, there’s no easy solution and football has to take its place in the queue in a long list of priorities. But the men in suits, wherever they are, will be aware that football is the game of the people and as such, has an important role to play in the morale of a big section of the population. The “bread and circuses” element of the game has been temporarily lost as we all become extras in a science-fiction movie.