A very difficult question for which there is seemingly no right answer…
The Premier League, in partnership with the British Government and Football League, have pitched their plan to resume the league season. This plan, dubbed “Project Restart”, shows the commitment of the footballing authorities in England, as well as the government, to resuming and finishing the 2019-2020 football season. The plan would involve all teams playing behind closed doors matches in neutral sites, with stadiums like Wembley and the London Olympic Stadium being tabbed as possible venues, and finishing the rest of the league season in around a month and a half, with early June being selected as an expected start date.
While most, if not all, Premier League teams support resuming and completing the season, this plan has been met with opposition from some clubs, as well as players. The debate around this plan does beg the question if it is even worth restarting the season at all. The Premier League would not be the first or the last league to cancel the rest of the season. However, when you consider the positives and negatives of each side, it is easy to see how no option is seemingly the right one, and you have to pity the Premier League and FA for the position they find themselves in.
Let us start this discussion by looking at “Project Restart”, a plan with, at least somewhat, good intentions but plenty of problems. The issue at the very heart of restarting the Premier League is TV revenue. The league’s TV contracts are among the most affluent in the world, and they are the lifeblood for most teams in the league, almost too much so. While this can be seen as rich football club owners trying to get as much money as possible, it could be a matter of life and death for clubs at the lower end of the table. Burnley chairman Mike Garlick warned that the Midlands club could run out of money by August if the league season is canceled, forecasting losses of up to £50 million this year. Burnley is one of four clubs in the Premier League in which TV revenue makes up over 80% of total revenue, with Bournemouth, Watford, and Crystal Palace joining them on that list. Regular top-half finishers Leicester, Wolves, and Everton make up a list of clubs in which TV revenue makes up between 70-80% of total revenue, showing that the issues do not just plague the bottom half of the league. Combined with the significant decline in player value and possible collapse of the upcoming summer transfer window, a loss of TV revenue could lead to significant, near disastrous, losses for teams across England. Having seen the issues arising in France, where Ligue 1 teams are set to miss out on around €250 million in total TV revenue following cancellation of the remaining Ligue 1 season, Premier League teams are motivated to not have that outcome happen to them. While at a glance, the desire to maintain this revenue seems incredibly greedy given the times we find ourselves in, this is something that could change the landscape of English football forever.
Despite the intentions of the plan being sound, there are still significant issues with it. For starters, there is still a significant health risk. The United Kingdom’s response to this pandemic has been, to put it kindly, not great, and while experts say the country is nearing the peak of the pandemic, signaling that the nation is indeed on the brink of “flattening the curve”, it is still way too early to consider this a viable plan. While the peak of the pandemic is near, it still has not been reached, meaning the threat of the virus is still quite prevalent. Until that “curve flattening” has taken place, and the spread of the virus in the U.K. is decreasing, then any plan to restart a sport that requires 22 people to be in close contact, and could also require several hundred staff and media personnel to be in attendance, should not be considered. Prominent Premier League footballers, most notably Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero, have spoken out against this plan, saying they are afraid of contracting the virus and spreading it to their families, and to be fair to them, that is a valid complaint. The need for the government to include stipulations for teams, including regulations to wear face masks in training and the need to disinfect footballs, corner flags, and goals, in order to restart shows that we have not reached the time in which this plan is not a massive health risk. For the plan to work, the league would also need hundreds, if not thousands, of testing kits in order to regularly test players, staff, and media members. The scarcity of these tests has already been discussed by news outlets around the world, and the desire to take thousands of them away from the people that need them the most is not something that clubs should sign on to do. I understand that the FA is under a time crunch, with UEFA requesting that all leagues be completed by August, but this still feels very rushed.
The rushed nature of this plan also signals one of its other major weaknesses: the lack of consideration for the lower league teams. While this plan has specifically been formulated by the Premier League, in coordination with the British government, it does not appear that the EFL or FA have a plan for the teams in the Football League Championship, League 1, and League 2. While there are probably similar behind-closed-doors restart plans being formulated for them, those three leagues face more unique issues than the Premier League. Teams in those leagues are significantly more reliant on ticket revenue and match day attendance than teams in the Premier League, meaning even games held behind closed doors could lead to disastrous economic results. With the financial instability of the EFL on full display in the last few years with Bury’s possible extinction and Bolton’s near extinction, it is very likely that without support from the government, FA, or Premier League, several teams in the EFL could also go bust. Unfortunately, there is seemingly no good solution to solve this issue. We have seen the positive results of the major teams in Germany donating their media revenue to help fund second division teams in the county, but this is an issue on a significantly larger scale. There are 71 clubs in the EFL, following Bury’s expulsion from the Football League, and it is very hard to find a solution that provides funding to all of the clubs in need.
So, what about the other alternative? Is canceling the remainder of the season a good plan? Well, no, it is not. Outside of the significant financial impact for Premier League clubs discussed earlier, canceling the season creates several more issues, all centered around the league table. When deciding how to finish the league season, the Premier League would have four options: void the season entirely and base the standings off of last season, decide that the table as it stands is the final league table, decide the league table as it stood on the final completed match day (Match Day 28) is the final table, or decide the final standings on points per game. This also spawns several spin-off questions. Do you crown a champion? Do you relegate teams, and if so, how many? How do you allocate the European places? The already-set precedents provide some guide. In France, the league table was decided on points-per-game, and the league crowned the champion, European places, and relegation teams based on the table. Only two teams were relegated, instead of the normal three, due to the inability to hold a promotion playoff. In the Netherlands, the league table as it stood was the final table, and while there was no champion and no relegation, the European places were handed out.
Voiding the season completely is probably the worst option of those four. While many would find great entertainment in seeing Liverpool be denied their long-awaited title, they are 25 points clear. While they have not mathematically sealed the title, I highly doubt they would be caught. This would also be very cruel on Leicester City and Manchester United, who would potentially miss out on Champions League qualification. Spurs and Arsenal, who probably do not deserve a European place on balance of the season, would be awarded spots over more deserving teams. This option should not be considered.
Ending the season on Match Day 28 vs Match Day 29 is another difficult decision. Manchester City, Arsenal, Sheffield United, and Aston Villa have all played one less match than the rest of the league. While it does not make much of a difference for City, it is a massive deal for the other three teams. Sheffield United’s game in hand is the difference between 5th, and the Champions League, and their current position in 7th, while Arsenal’s game in hand is the difference between 7th, and the Europa League, and their current position outside of the European places. Aston Villa’s game in hand is the difference between safety and relegation. It would not be fair to decide the league with several teams having games in hand, but it also is not fair to the other teams, who could not control whether those games in hand were played or not, as none of the European or relegation places have been confirmed. Basing the table off of Match Day 28 would still mean relegation for Villa, but would guarantee Champions League for Sheffield United, beating out Manchester United by one point. Spurs would make the Europa League over Arsenal on goal difference. The table is still remarkably close regardless of using Match Day 28 or 29’s table. Deciding the table on points per game is seemingly the only fair outcome of the four, and it would not lead to many differences from where the table currently is. The biggest difference is Arsenal, currently with a game in hand, earning a Europa League place over Spurs, but Villa would still go down despite their game in hand. None of these outcomes are perfect, and they would likely lead to legal challenges from several teams, as we are seeing in France and the Netherlands, and the potential issues with this idea suggests the need to finish the season.
The decision on relegation has also been weighed up, with France relegating their bottom two and the Netherlands not relegating anyone. It is unfair to relegate teams who still have a chance at survival, which all of the current bottom three do. The loss of Premier League TV revenue could be massive for the relegated clubs, and while there has been no indication that this situation will impact the parachute payments that relegated clubs receive, it is not unreasonable to think that those payments may be affected. It is also massively unfair on the Championship clubs that have put themselves in good position for promotion. Leeds United and West Brom currently occupy the automatic promotion places, and while they have not sealed promotion, they do enjoy a fairly healthy 6-to-7 point gap on the playoff places. While we have seen teams collapse from this position before (I’m looking at you, Leeds), it is not wildly unfair to promote them. A lack of promotion, however, would be a big deal for them. It is likely that many of those teams’ star players, who have been attracting interest from other clubs, would not want to spend another year in the Championship, meaning these clubs would have to retool their teams with less money than would normally be available to them. Leeds could potentially lose star midfielder Kalvin Phillips and would definitely lose on-loan star center back Ben White. West Brom would also definitely lose their star on-loan attackers Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana. Both teams would be in much worse positions to fight for promotion next season should they not be promoted, and they would also miss out on the significant pay day that the Premier League TV money offers. As much as it would be unfair to relegate teams without finishing the season, it would be equally unfair to Leeds and West Brom to not promote them. It would be harsh to also not promote a third team from the playoff places, but unless the playoff is played behind closed doors, there is no good way to promote a third team. Promoting Fulham, who currently sit in third, would be quite unfair to the rest of the teams in the playoff places. Using the current playoff places and playing the playoff would also be unfair, considering there is only a six point gap between 6th and 13th with 11 matches remaining. Any outcome apart from ending the season would likely elicit a legal challenge from the top teams in the Championship, who all theoretically have a shot at promotion, and this does not even begin to scratch the surface of the relegation issue, with promotion and relegation not fully sealed in any of the EFL leagues.
You can see the “rock and a hard place” level of predicament the FA finds themselves in. Under the current UEFA guidelines, which call for league seasons to be concluded by August, there is no one ideal scenario to fix this. If you were to place this decision on me, I would have to say that finding a way to conclude the season is the only fair outcome. “Project Restart” is not a great idea. It creates significant health, logistical, and infrastructural issues, but football-wise it is the fairest way to end the season. Allowing teams to earn titles and promotion on merit is the only way to avoid legal challenges. Also, allowing teams to earn the financial revenue they need from the TV contracts is the only way to not leave lasting, irreversible damage on the landscape of English football. Without UEFA agreeing to move the window in which league seasons need to be completed, subsequently delaying the start of the 2020-21 season, I do not see any of the issues related to “Project Restart” subsiding in requisite time. The health risk to players, staff, and their families is unavoidable, and the amount of tests needed to ensure the safety of those involved will massively impact the ability of the NHS to function at necessary capacity. In the current time frame allowed, there is no right answer to solve this issue.