It has been five weeks since the National League hosted the last round of fixtures in English football. For fans of the top four divisions, it has been even longer. You would, however, be forgiven for thinking it had been even longer. Since those final matches on 14 March, the return date for Premier League has been pushed back repeatedly, the lockdown has been extended and the National League has cancelled its remaining fixtures. Indeed, if the Football Association’s (F.A.) latest target of 8 June is met, it will be nearly three months since a ball was last kicked competitively. The F.A. stressed that football would only return when ‘it is safe and appropriate to do so’ but with lockdown extended across the country and the peak yet to pass, is it really safe and appropriate to bring football back?
No Fans, No Football
At what point does the F.A. admit defeat and postpones the season indefinitely? With repeated setbacks, ‘Project Restart’ has been one of false-starts and overly-ambitious targets. Current plans to play the remaining fixtures behind closed doors also raise the additional question as to whether there is any point in doing so without fans?
Football has always been for the fans. By removing such an integral component you are diluting the entire product. Fans will still rejoice to see their teams in action again, but the novelty of its grand return will regress with generic, low-energy affairs. With such a long gap, the end of season run-in will be devoid of its usually high-stakes excitement and urgency. Pumping chants and fan noise to create the illusion of an atmosphere will have the opposite effect and make the absence of the fans even more notable. Added to this, the rumoured suggestion that clubs will allow fans to purchase cardboard cutouts for their seats is laughable; this is real life, not FIFA. The fans are generally regarded as the 12th man for good reason and their absence will surely be felt by those clubs most reliant on their support to even the odds against the ‘bigger’ teams.
Could bringing football without the fans even prove to be counter-productive to the current lockdown measures? After all, Football is a social magnet. Already it has been reported that starved supporters have attended training sessions in Germany as teams begin preparations for the scheduled return of the Bundesliga on 8 May. The return of German football is eagerly anticipated, but can English football justify the same approach? Despite a similar number of reported cases, the death rate in Britain far exceeds that in Germany. To echo Brighton & Hove Albion’s Chief Executive Paul Barber, timing is key. The situation might improve enough by June, but as we approach May, it seems an unnecessary risk. Expelling fans might limit the risk, but why is football even coming back when such a risk is still present?
The Key Factors: Money and Footballers
It should be noted that the situation facing the ‘beautiful game’ is not as romantic as simply being driven by when fans can safely attend matches again. Clearly the driving force is financial. Football, more than anything, is a business in 2020. This creates complexities and pressure for clubs to resume the season as soon as possible. From clubs like F.C. Barcelona to entire leagues like the Bundesliga, juggernauts of world football have already made it clear they fear for their survival. Indeed, the clear difference between those who have already made the decision to abandon the season (Belgian Pro League, Eredivisie) to those adamant to finish it despite being hit harder by the pandemic (Premier League, Serie A) is the money the latter generates on a global scale. That driving force could be about to change, however. In France, they appear to have conceded defeat in finishing the Ligue 1 and 2 seasons and La Liga in Spain faces the similar issue of not being able to conclude the campaign before the beginning of the 2020/21 season in August despite plans for teams to return to training on 4 May.
Another issue that has been overlooked until recently is the health and condition of the actual players. Both Declan Rice and Hugo Lloris have highlighted the heightened risk of injury to players after a lengthy layoff. The majority of footballers might have kept themselves in shape away from the pitch and the gradual resumption of individual and team training akin to that already underway in Germany and eventually Italy, but that can only go so far in getting players back up to match fitness and condition. After all, there is a reason why teams utilise pre-season, reserve team football and substitute appearances to get players up to scratch. With the immense pressure to finish the season before August the final run of fixtures (9-10 games in the Premier League) will be condensed into a period that will likely require teams to play a minimum of twice a week. Performances will suffer and injuries will inevitably occur from such a sudden introduction after months of inactivity.
Postpone Indefinitely, Look Ahead to Next Season
Null and voiding the season is off the table as both a financial option and in terms of its (un)popularity with the majority of fans. Nor can the Premier League be allowed to return in the current climate. If this was not enough, the remaining fixtures are already disjointed from the rest of the season. This will undoubtedly be replicated in performances to create the feel of a mini-league rather than the conclusion of a full season. That is why a merger with next season should start to be discussed as a realistic option. By carrying the points tally over from the current campaign to next year, teams would be allowed to retain their progress from the previous campaign. It would also enable clubs to complete their outstanding fixtures from 2019/20 over the course of a new campaign to create – in the case of the Premier League – a 47-48 game season over a more sustained and manageable period of months. To compensate this, the less profitable Carabao Cup competition could be placed on a one-year hiatus to allow clubs to fulfil their fixture obligations in midweek rather than prolonging the length of the season any closer to rescheduled European Championships.
In theory, this would also allow some sort of semblance to return to football leagues across Europe with Champions League and Europa League qualification lining up across the board with those who have already abandoned the season. Whilst this will mean these competitions do not take place in their usual format in 2020/21, UEFA could instead focus on finishing the 2019/20 competitions that are also without a conclusion. Likewise, it would hopefully ease the disruption to the English football pyramid following the National League’s decision to abandon their remaining fixtures. By delaying the return of football until the new season in August, enough time would have hopefully passed for it to be ‘safe and appropriate’ to bring back football with fans in attendance. Season tickets would remain the same with the backlog of fixtures already covered by the previous year’s season ticket to again restore some kind of order to things. It would ending hopes to bring back the Premier League in June, but if handled correctly by the F.A. it could result in minimum disruption being caused across English football.
The situation is always changing so it is understandable why all these preliminary plans are being made (and changed) for the imminent return of football. Five weeks in, however, and it might be time to start thinking more long-term as other leagues begin to take decisive action across Europe. We all want football back, but lets not rush what should be a celebrated return.