Image: Wikimedia Commons / Cléria De Souza
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Cléria De Souza

English football grinds to a halt amid coronavirus pandemic

It is in times of uncertainty that people always turn to football as a distraction. Just hours after Boris Johnson announced there would be no sporting cancellations amid the Covid-19 outbreak, a plethora of sporting organisations and tournaments announced their intentions to postpone fixtures until a later date. Included in this group are the English Football League (EFL) and the Premier League, who have agreed to postpone matches until after April 3rd.

This comes after the news that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the young Chelsea attacker, tested positive for the virus, whilst the first-team squads of Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Bournemouth, and Manchester City also went into self-isolation after coming in contact with other players and staff confirmed to have contracted Covid-19.

League bosses and owners have been forced to meet and discuss the best strategy for when football can be resumed

So, what happens next? It is unrealistic to expect these leagues to resume play on April 4th. With the number of confirmed cases growing exponentially every day, it could be weeks or months before another ball is kicked. League bosses and owners have therefore been forced to meet and discuss the best strategy for when football can be resumed, without jeopardising the health of any players or fans.

If play was to go ahead, it would likely occur behind closed doors, unless the government perform a U-turn on their decision not to ban mass gatherings, resulting in an eerie end to a season already marred by clashes between fans over VARs implementation.

The most likely outcome will be to postpone all football until the outbreak is contained, which could be well into summer, if not later. With discussions taking place to postpone Euro 2020 until 2021, and changes coming in to prepare for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this would open up more time for the delayed matches to be played without eating into the 2020/21 calendar. Regardless, we could see at a tumultuous few years of football.

Rendering the season ‘null and void’ would leave the Premier League in an unenviable situation of still having to divide the prize money clubs rely upon

For some, such as Karen Brady, West Ham’s vice-chairman, cancelling the competition and starting over for the 2020/2021 is a better alternative as it would cause less disruption to the footballing calendar. Putting aside the shameless opportunism from the executive of an underperforming club teetering on the brink of relegation, the legal and financial repercussions of such a move would tear the Premier League apart. Whilst some fans are begging for the season to be cancelled, thus denying Liverpool their first league title of the Premier League era, rendering the season ‘null and void’, as Baroness Brady proposes, would leave the Premier League in an unenviable situation of still having to divide the prize money clubs rely upon.

Disgruntled clubs would challenge the FA with years of legal action that seeks compensation for loss of earnings, particularly from teams like Leeds United and West Brom, who are looking to secure their place back in the top flight, worth around £170m each year. Sponsors and broadcasters would also likely want to recuperate a portion of their money if these games are not played and considering the current deal with Sky and BT is worth almost £1.5bn each year, the Premier League could be forced to make significant cuts to fund these payouts.

 

As indicated by the downfall of Bury and Bolton Wanderers earlier in the season, cancelling the remaining games could be catastrophic

 

When talking about this unprecedented situation, it is easy to get stuck in the Premier League bubble that has no time for small, financially unstable clubs. Ticket sales are less important for large clubs with billionaire owners, but for those in the lower divisions, they can be vital to paying wages. As indicated by the downfall of Bury and Bolton Wanderers earlier in the season, cancelling the remaining games could be catastrophic, especially if season tickets would need to be partially refunded. The government has declared there could be an economic rescue package for these clubs, but given the strain on other public services amid the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no guarantee this will become a reality.

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