It is just under seven weeks since English football was postponed due to the Coronavirus, and there is still no clear way forward. As Coventry City fans, we are desperate for a resolution to the season that will – and let’s be honest about this – see us promoted. Ideally, this would be achieved on the pitch (and in front of fans, but we all know that is incredibly unlikely), however, this post is a look at all of the factors that I believe will prevent that happening.
The challenge for football right now is the same that society faces, that is finding the balance between protecting public health while limiting the economic impact of the measures taken to protect public health.
On the one hand, limiting any kind of public gathering helps limit deaths, contain the virus and ultimately gets us back to some kind of normality as quickly as possible. On the other, the longer the economy is put on pause, the costlier it is for businesses and individuals, negatively impacting the kind of normality we hope to return to.
For football specifically, the balance is probably tipped more in favour of the economic imperative. With clubs currently bleeding money from paying wages without any current source of income, there is a desperation to get back playing in front of fans as soon as possible. This is especially so at the top level, where there is a risk that cancelling the season will cost clubs a significant sum of money in paying back TV rights deals.
However, the biggest issue complicating this desire to get back to playing football as soon as possible is the sheer logistical hurdle of keeping 91 squads of footballers isolated from the virus for what the EFL has mooted to be a 57 day period. Presuming each squad has 25 players, that is 2,275 people to keep isolated, before you factor in coaching staff, ground staff, physios, first-aid workers, caterers, cleaners, and the small amount of media required to broadcast each game.
Not only would it require an incredible level of attention to detail in avoiding anyone catching the virus – which would instantly pause the season for at least two weeks – but also an amount of testing that currently this country does not appear to have the capacity for. The testing issue raises an ethical question of what makes football so special at a time when we can’t currently test all of our medical staff and key workers.
Unless there is a rapid increase in this country’s testing capacity, resuming league football at any point over the next few weeks or months is just not going to be logistically or ethically viable. Even then, the whole enterprise would have to be put on hold every time there is a positive test.
If a resumption any time soon is not possible, why not just wait until a point a few months later when it is more viable? Especially when considering that next season is likely to hugely affected by this virus, why sacrifice this season for one that hasn’t been played yet, is likely to also be behind closed doors and could well be scuppered by another rise in the infection rate?
The answer is a financial one. As mentioned above, clubs are currently paying wages without any income from matchday revenue. Players’ contracts tend to expire on the 30th June, so while those players out of contract could be allowed to stay on until the season is completed, the longer it goes on for beyond the end of June, the more money clubs will have to spend with essentially no way to cover the increasing financial shortfall.
Given that the majority of Football League clubs have little left to play for, it is highly unlikely that those clubs will be willing to put themselves in financial peril in order to help others win promotion or avoid relegation. Furthermore, even for those clubs seeking promotion or to avoid relegation, the financial benefits of doing so are not likely to outweigh the costs of an extension to the season of more than one or two months.
We are already seeing Football League clubs, including ourselves, having to put their players on furlough, agree to wage cuts and, in some instances, having to cut some loose. The financial strain has begun and will only get worse the longer the suspension of football drags on.
The only way to resolve this would be a financial bailout of the Football League. However, it is unclear where this money would come from. It would seem highly unlikely that a government who so recently hung footballers out to dry for their wages would step in. The EFL itself seemingly doesn’t have the financial reserves to do so. The FA might, but that money would be better spent on grassroots and non-league football where there isn’t an option to play football behind closed doors. The Premier League is most likely, but that money could well come with strings attached – such as B Teams in the Football League.
While next season is uncertain, there is some certainty to be gained from knowing that this one is over. Clubs can reduce costs as much as possible by releasing their out-of-contract players, not signing new ones, furloughing as many of their staff members they can get away with until the new season returns. In addition, they may be able to raise income by selling season tickets (albeit, likely at a reduced price to take into account the likelihood of next season being played behind closed doors for an extended period) and other fundraising measures – which would perhaps be where bailout money would be most effective.
The question you have to ask is whether the chance for Coventry City to win promotion on the pitch is worth increasing the spread of the virus, and putting our own and other football clubs in financial peril?