On Tuesday 10th March, as I left Fratton Park having watched my team Fleetwood Town snatch a crucial point against fellow promotion hopefuls Portsmouth, I had no idea that it would be the last game in the UK’s domestic football leagues for an indefinite period of time.
The next day, Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid in a game which the media – and probably politicians, in hindsight – would claim should never have gone ahead due to the dangerous speed with which COVID-19 was tearing through the Spanish capital.
This suspension of football, regardless of how long it lasts, is of course vital in ensuring public health is preserved – no one can argue with that. However, the longer it goes on, the more detrimental the impacts could be further down the leagues.
It was almost laughable seeing all-but-champions Liverpool, who reported turnover of £533m just weeks before football’s suspension, putting some non-playing staff on the government’s Job Retention Scheme, using taxpayers’ money to pay their staff whilst paying players’ salaries in full and boasting huge profits. Rightly, the club reversed that decision just days later after facing public scrutiny, not least from their own players.
Jurgen Klopp showed compassion for all at the start of this pandemic, senior players heavily involved in @premierleague players taking wage cuts. Then all that respect & goodwill is lost, poor this @LFC https://t.co/9bE8Rw1veE
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) April 4, 2020
As Tom Clabon explains, EFL clubs face a huge struggle to recover from this. Liverpool and other mega-rich clubs in the Premier League may struggle in the short-term – perhaps a few quiet transfer windows, using more youth players, or sacrificing gate receipts for a few months. Further down the leagues however, the worries clubs have are significantly worse.
Writing from the perspective of an EFL fan gives me a slightly different insight. My club, Fleetwood Town, are leading the way in League 1 in the response to Coronavirus. Chairman Andy Pilley confirmed that “the club will continue to exist […] even if I have to make cost-cutting measures” in a series of videos on the club’s official YouTube channel. But Fleetwood fans, and other fans in Leagues 1 and 2, will be well aware of the consequences of a long break from football.
One only has to look at how this season started for League 1 clubs to understand the damage that this will cause. The League 1 season nearly started with just 22 teams, after the threat of Bolton Wanderers – not long ago a Premier League side – and Bury being expelled from the league as a result of financial peril. The former got off relatively lightly, with a 12 point deduction and having to play several games with youth players; subsequently the results did not make a pretty reading. The latter could not start the season and the club were suspended from the Football League – and this was all well before COVID-19 was a threat to club finances.
A lot of the focus has been on gate receipts. Fleetwood’s last home game – a 0-0 draw in a fierce local derby against Blackpool – was the last time the club had any gate receipts, a vital source of funding for clubs at this level. Luckily, tight budgets, smart changes in club strategy, like a monthly season ticket called the ‘Onward Card’, and a Sunderland-style documentary into life at Fleetwood Town during controversial manager Joey Barton’s inaugural season, mean the club’s finances look healthy – hence chairman Pilley’s reassurances. Other clubs may not be so lucky, especially if – as several chairmen predict – there are no live games in front of crowds in 2020.
Beyond gate receipts, clubs at this level also depend a lot more on off-the-field funding. Fleetwood Town’s Highbury Stadium and Poolfoot Farm training complex has several other functions – a local broadcaster during the 2018 World Cup, functions like weddings and parties, or even having an open club shop. These are all suppliers of crucial funds for these clubs. Playing games behind closed doors, sadly, doesn’t solve the issue and certainly doesn’t save clubs from an uncertain future.
Even though our fans have been assured that we will be okay, what about the competition itself? In the short term, as I’ve explained here, the solutions aren’t clear at all. The National League announced on April 22 that all clubs had voted to cancel the season, but what does that mean for promotion or relegation? Bolton and Southend were 21 and 16 points from safety respectively, but Tranmere were just 3 points from safety, with a game in hand. It surely wouldn’t be fair to relegate Tranmere in this situation. Similarly – and more pertinent for Fleetwood fans – the promotion and play-off situation is also unclear. 1 point lies between 3rd and 8th place, and 3 points between 2nd and 8th. With automatic promotion and the play-offs far from certain, would it be fair to end the season with 8-10 games left to play, in such tight circumstances?
In the long-term, the issues are much greater than this. In the sad inevitability that clubs perish as a result of COVID-19, how does the EFL restructure? Unfortunately, whenever football returns, the headaches faced by the EFL and its member clubs will stretch on for many more months and years to come.