The game is close to the brink again, and not just the completion of the league seasons of the top four divisions and the FA Cup, but all that goes with it: the finances that support the creaking edifice, buffeted by ten months of shutdown stadiums.
The death rates are peaking, the spring is predicted to bring ever more infection, London’s crisis is declared a major incident and, in the eye of the storm, football clutches its permission slip to play on. Whatever the nation’s biggest sport might have assumed about its right to continue, whatever nebulous claim it might have on raising the spirits of a country in lockdown, nothing can be taken for granted.
There is no space in the calendar for a temporary shutdown and should football suspend play again then who knows when it might be given permission to restart. Jose Mourinho, whose Tottenham Hotspur side played four games in eight days in September, says that he cannot envisage how his club would accommodate a third postponement, already having two Fulham fixtures floating untethered around the schedule. He is not the only one wondering how the game will organise itself.
The proverbial quart has been squeezed into a pint pot and not a day can be wasted. By matchday 38 on May 23, everyone, from Leeds United’s midfield to the Premier League’s be-crowned corporate lion, forever obliged to roar his approval, is going to be absolutely shattered. If English football at the elite level, and all those below who rely upon its fragile financial infrastructure, are to make it through to the penultimate week in May then they will have to play by their new rules.
The Premier League’s stringent new measures issued to clubs this week were a signal that the gains made in Project Restart can only be retained if the clubs are prepared to work for them. Of course, stopping the joy of goal celebrations, shirt swaps, handshakes and hugs can be like serving the bun without the burger but these are all designed to reduce risk, and if the game is to survive Covid-19 then it will have to make a strong case for its exemption.
Football is at that stage again, albeit this time it is still playing and eager to maintain that privilege. On balance, last season’s Project Restart was a resounding success, confounding those who worried it would end in chaos, increased infections, and maybe even preventable deaths. In the end the worst thing that happened to anyone was relegation. The echoing stadiums and packed schedules were far from ideal, but they kept the broadcast penalties to a minimum and the show on the road.
As an anxious government looks on, considering even harsher lockdown measures, football will have to demonstrate the discipline of its protocols as well as just enforce them. It has to be seen to be doing it properly. Those players who have Instagramed their own Covid-19 protocol transgressions over New Year each contribute in a small way to undermining the game’s case. Whatever misgivings it has about assuming the queasy position of role model it cannot be both the nation’s tonic, and its uncooperative teenager.
Had this pandemic been visited on the game in the 1960s, or the 1970s, in the golden era of packed terraces and affordable tickets then the shutdown might well have killed some of the great clubs already, so beholden were they to the takings on the gate. Football has struggled on, not always with much dignity at clubs where billionaire owners have refused to offer subsidies, or redundancies have affected the lowest-paid employees. Neither has it rescued every club at every level, but as things stand the 92 clubs are still intact as the country awaits vaccination.
When Steve Bruce says that there is no moral case to play on, one has sympathy with his own concerns and his Newcastle United players who have struggled with Covid-19. But there is also an imperative within the bounds of what is safe – and the Premier League has shown it can be done – to save an industry which means so much to so many. There is a moral obligation for the richest to help the rest and so ceasing games puts in jeopardy the £50 million Premier League grant for League One and Two and the £200 million backed loan for the Championship.
Although the true figures are only likely to come out in time, the Premier League has estimated that its clubs lost revenues of £700 million last season and are currently operating on a collective loss of £100 million a month – projections that would put the running total at more than £1 billion by now. Football can cope with training ground spot checks, travelling to matches in three coaches and reining in the goal celebrations. What it cannot afford is another suspension of games.
These next few weeks are likely to be the hardest for the country and the NHS. There will likely be some more big positive test totals from the players and staff cohort screened twice weekly in the Premier League and the Football League. The 112 positives that came back from the Football League’s 3,507-strong round of testing dwarfed anything from last season but relative to the current national rates were not as bad as had been feared. Even so there may be some clubs obliged to field sub-optimum teams in the coming weeks because of Covid-19 rather than push games back into a schedule that is already packed.
The Premier League season ends six days before the Champions League final which precedes the beginning of Euro 2020 by 13 days. There is no room left to move. Football has to demonstrate that it deserves the privileged status afforded it to play on. It saved itself once and now, to paraphrase a famous team talk, it will have to go out there and save itself all over again.