Coronavirus: ‘Nothing off the table’ as Premier League scramble for solutions to finish season

In the videoconferences being staged by the Premier League these days, a mood of innovation is being encouraged. The view is very much that “nothing is off the table”. Almost anything will be considered. That is the determination to finish the 2019-20 season. Many would say desperation – which raises a series of other questions.

It is this mindset, nevertheless, that has led to the idea of isolated World Cup-style camps and a June-July “TV mega event” gaining traction over the last few days.

It won’t definitely happen, but is strongly under consideration.

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To some involved, it is a “genius” solution, that may well be the most workable in the circumstances. To others, including people central to discussions, it is pretty crass in those circumstances and only encourages the perception that football believes it is a law unto itself and somehow separate.

Some subscribe do the view that it’s tone-deaf to even be discussing potential solutions in such a health crisis.

On that, it should be pointed out that football officials are just like the majority of the population at this time: they have a lot of time to fill, and jobs to fulfil. The crisis hasn’t suspended that. It is perfectly legitimate ad obvious for them to spend that work-time trying to come up with solutions and contingency plans for all of this – and there is an inherent realisation that flexibility is essential.

There’s also the fact that these debates are not taking place in public. It’s just that information will get out, and it’s the sports media’s job to find out and report it, which is equally legitimate in the circumstances. Few want to think about the effects of coronavirus 24-7, and there is a fair wonder as to what might happen to a sport that generally consumes a lot of people – especially as it is implicitly acknowledged that it isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things.

A deeper problem here is the fact that the Premier League, and a lot of football, is facing a ticking clock.

If the season is not completed, the 20 clubs could have to pay hundreds of millions back to the broadcasters. Some calculations have it that the Premier League could lose up to £1.2bn in such an event, compared to just £169m if games are played behind closed doors. On the other side, there is the danger of the break in play just becoming so long it distorts all competition.

It is why this issue for once isn’t as simplistic as being down to greed, even if it is still about money.

For some clubs, this may genuinely develop into a matter of survival – and that is already the case lower down the football pyramid.

It’s also why this is not just being considered in England. German sources have told The Independent the Bundesliga is making similar plans, and talking about using a handful of stadiums to stage the final set of matches. The competition was one match-day away from receiving TV money for the season, money that is crucial for the whole German pyramid.

The greatest question around all this is really how football has become so belligerently beholden to such interests, and why exactly the sport is so rigidly structured along these lines.

If the so-called people’s game can’t easily take pause at a time of real-world crisis for those same people, it is time for a mass reassessment.

Those same pressures, however, mean that is a question for later. For now, football’s authorities must try and find the most workable solution.

It won’t necessarily be the “fairest” solution. That is almost impossible, which means compromises are essential.

For their part, the majority of the Premier League realise this. Some outside the discussions are pointing to how the founding principles of league football will be distorted, especially if the very concept of a home-and-away programme is being compromised.

The clubs themselves know this, but would still just prefer to get the season finished. And a founding principle of the Premier League is that a majority of 14 rules in such votes.

The clubs, however, aren’t the only stakeholders. There are obviously the fans, and hundreds of thousands of season-ticket holders.

They should be recompensed in such an event, but this of course really does go beyond money. Supporters bought those tickets because they want to attend games, because that community expression is really what football is about.

It again begs the bigger question of why and how the sport is structured as it is. Many in the game would again point to those greater pressures.

The argument is that if they don’t play the season out, a lot of these supporters won’t have the same game – or maybe even the same club – to go back to.

They would say it’s all about the greater good – which is something else that’s worth pointing back to, but not just in a football sense.

One of the reasons effective training grounds in the midlands have been mooted for this solution is to mitigate against the possibility of fans congregating for games, and that of course reflects many other ethical concerns.

How can a state preach social distancing when they allow matches to take place where there is constant contact, and sweating and movement, between players – not to mention the hundreds of staff required for televised games?

How can the medical professionals essential to the staging of such matches be ethically allowed work at them when there is an ongoing crisis?

And what of the hotel staff and all the other workers who will be required to make this happen?

It all sounds so irresponsible in that context, and makes the fundamental idea of these hermetically sealed camps a fantasy.

Sources within the Premier League insist all of that is precisely why the plan is explicitly for June and July and not now, as they are planning for a period after the peak of deaths.

There is a hope that the circumstances will have changed for the better, that testing will be more widespread and the curve will have flattened. They know this is the only way this is appropriate.

There is also the danger, however, that it could get worse.

Sources in Italy point to how any push to get football back has been rendered pointless by the tragic number of deaths and the fact many in football have been badly affected, having lost loved ones. It just hasn’t been on the agenda.

“The mindset in the Premier League might well transform if you’re in a situation where some of these same figures or chairmen are on ventilators or their families are,” one figure close to the discussions said.

Even if it doesn’t get to that, a scenario where there are 500 deaths a day would immediately make it grotesque and inappropriate to even consider such a plan feasible. Announcing it would be the height of insensitivity.  It would also run the risk of perpetually damaging the Premier League’s reputation, as we’ve seen with other businesses like Britannia Hotels or Wetherspoons.

The government are aware of all this, but have still offered quiet encouragement to the plans. The belief is that live televised football could be a vital lift for the nation, especially if lockdown measures are increased or tightened. It might also be a key psychological step in returning to normality and getting the economy moving again. For all the altruism behind such backing, mind, there are more self-interested lobbies invested in and influencing this. Marketing, gambling and, yes, the media, would be in favour. The government are aware of this, too.

There’s then the self-interest of the clubs themselves.

But that is why, if it does actually happen, some of the cost should be compensated by giving a lot back. Some have excitedly talked about the massive interest such TV events would generate – and the massive money. That would be all the more reason to put much of that money to better use.

If an argument is this is needed so the Premier League save themselves, solidarity funds should be set up to save those lower down the football pyramid – and, above all, to contribute to the wider fight against the coronavirus crisis.

Any money from this should go in multiple directions, not just 20. That is the only way it should be allowed to take place.

That’s, of course, if it can take place at all. One positive test could disrupt the whole thing. One positive test before a crucial final game would be even worse, and the very thought displays how the circumstances could be open to abuse.

It still instinctively feels like the best and only thing that football can do is wait and see, and ensure any proposed solutions are entirely flexible.

The pressures currently mitigate against that approach. The situation, however, may well force it.

This crisis may yet clear the table of any idea put forward.

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