The implications of the COVID-19 outbreak will likely spare no facet of life as we know it: the global economy, interpersonal relationships, how care and social care are viewed, the hitherto freedom of being able to travel pretty much anywhere, and most sadly, the number of people who will die as a result of the disease.
The potential impact on domestic football can of course seem utterly trivial by comparison; the collective decision to suspend almost all organised matches in the country until early April was the prudent one, although as the days and even hours pass in a very changeable situation, any notion of resuming on that schedule looks blindly optimistic.
With roughly 80% of the season completed and the leagues poised for the run-in, the timing could scarcely be worse, especially for the clubs hoping to gain long-awaited silverware (like Liverpool) or promotion to a higher tier. Even those at the opposite end of the standings will take scant comfort in their predicted fate being unresolved.
The largest unknown factor at present is the timescale of the ‘peak’ to taper off under the current guidelines. Conservative estimates are several months, which would mean the height of the summer. Ignoring the contractual aspect for a moment, players are already being asked not to turn up to training. Whilst I’m sure they’ll still have some sort of regimen to maintain a high level of fitness, it would probably take a long lead-in to be back up to an acceptable standard of match sharpness. All in all, this would probably serve to delay matters further.
By far the most horrible part to contemplate is how the coronavirus could kill large numbers of people, with particular reference to the over 70s and those with underlying health conditions. Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt has been vocal about the stark reality, doubtlessly conscious that a high proportion of the Lancashire outfit’s fanbase is in that demographic. No words can come close to how awful that is going to be, and is something that will repeated up and down the country. I can only hope it’s confined to an absolute minimum.
All of the above with the exception of the obvious might have been manageable if they were contained within a football culture and governance structure that looked beyond the annual balance sheets as a barometer of success. Between the muddled and shambolic auspices of the FA, the Premier League, and the EFL, there exists a toxic, trickle-down economic model, which thanks chiefly to television money and sponsorship, has lasted until this critical juncture. It won’t afterwards.
Stories such as the one that befell Bury gained plenty of wider scrutiny when they occurred, but could ostensibly be shrugged off as the weeks passed after their expulsion because of the almost criminal way in which they were operated by Stewart Day and then Steve Dale. The EFL washed their hands of it all extremely quickly, and subsequently released a report in late February effectively exonerating themselves from any responsibility. In the interluding months, massive problems have plagued several other teams, eroding the inculcation that every side had to submit sufficient proof of funds for the 2019/2020 season prior to it taking place.
Even those clubs with great backing off the field are going to feel the pinch; for most below the Championship, matchday income is their primary source of cash. They have now been robbed of that for an indeterminate duration that will far exceed early April; all the while, they will be paying the salaries of players and staff with very little in the way of revenue. Even the most benevolent and wealthy of owners will be sweating on the current situation.
Equally, it’s also unrealistic to expect those whose contracts expire in the summer to remain in situ if they’ve already been told they can leave. There is going to be a huge swathe of individuals in legal and financial limbo in the coming months, and it’s also vitally important to remember that in the non-league, that only applies until the end of the competitive campaign, not the cusp of July.
Although I have no ‘horse’ in the race, I believe the only outcome that’s close to fair is to null and void the season. I can also foresee the impasse being used in the future as leverage to cut down the total possible number of fixtures teams play. Even though I largely support that idea, without measures to ensure that smaller clubs don’t make losses, it will be yet another massive blow to those outside of the elite. Legal challenges, whilst understandable in theory, to any attempt to void the season will look ever more desperate and churlish as things unfold. There should be some form of recognition for the current leaders, but beyond that, it risks sinking into an endless quagmire of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and ‘maybes’ that no-one will come out of for the better.
Calls for the likes of Manchester City to support Macclesfield Town directly through the epidemic are wide of the mark. Solidarity needs to come from a far wider communal recognition that the structures in place are ill-suited to a small deviation from the script, let alone one of the magnitude that COVID-19 represents. It ought not to take a crisis to shake the cobwebs off the powers that be, but there is now a grave risk of the bottom of the game being completely cut away. I sadly anticipate many grassroots organisations and outfits being forced to fold without major intervention from the governing bodies.
An industry has grown up around and latterly exploded around football in the social media age of those who earn their corn from the sport, all the way from freelancers like several friends of mine to YouTubers to print/online press journalists. Whilst the latter group might be a little more secure for now, it’s important to remember their livelihoods could be in serious jeopardy.
There are no positives whatsoever to take from it all. Any possible moves to shore up the financial strife many will suffer from are unlikely to reach everyone in need. The only silver lining is if lasting and more stringent regulation is brought about, and that requires a step change in mentality. Whether that will come about by government force is another matter, but I should imagine that football is a long way down the list of sectors requiring some form of aid and investigation for the remainder of the year.
Mental health will also take a battering; there are many who depend on football in one way or another, whether financially, socially, or in another form. The probability of having loved ones die juxtaposed with the stark likelihood of the team they support going the same way thanks to coronavirus should be a clarion call to everyone to look out for each other as more and more have to self-isolate. It is in some ways a blessing to have the level of technology that makes it easier to check in with colleagues, friends, and family, and there really is no time like the present to start in earnest doing just that. As someone who’s currently medicating for depression, I have a degree of understanding just how valuable and necessary this is going to be.