While many executives logged on to Friday’s Premier League videoconference expecting a fractious few hours, the mood was said to be “mostly subdued”, as if the enormity of the Coronavirus crisis had finally become clear. This meant that agreement was very quickly struck on one of the most contentious recent issues. All present committed to completing the 2019-20 season, but only when it is safe to do so – even if it means going until October. No dates have been fixed, as many realise the futility of that. The idea of voiding the season was meanwhile killed, despite some insistence on trying to ensure this beforehand.
Beyond that, “there was a lot of bullshit” – in the words of one source – “but there was progress, and it was useful”.
That could also describe the past week in football. Some in the game have quipped about how fast-moving the news cycle has been despite the fact there are no fixtures. Every day has seen a new major debate, from the leaking of ambitious solutions to the crisis and the issue of voiding the season, to putting staff on furlough and the huge controversy over player wages.
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That week has also seen the game – and particularly the Premier League – take a kicking, which helped cleared a few minds. They are all acutely aware that the competition’s hugely positive international business reputation has been carefully built over a long time, but could quickly come crashing down with a few missteps in this crisis. It’s for this reason there were a few comments about clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United putting staff on furlough.
This naturally played a part in some of the Premier League’s more concrete and commendable decisions. Funds of £125m have been advanced to the EFL and National League, as the football pyramid comes under huge financial stress, while £20m will be donated “to support the NHS, communities, families and vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
As regards that £125m, some sources do feel this is the “bare minimum”, since it is money that is due anyway. There is similarly a sense it won’t do all that much for the lower leagues. It’s “better than nothing”, according to one source, but it’s not a rescue package.
Even those skeptical, however, feel that the Premier League clubs are at least getting ahead of the situation. There is an awareness of the optics of all this, not least when it comes to pushing to get back to football at a time when death rates are about to peak.
That hugely influenced the signal of intent on the biggest issue of the week: player wages. The 20 clubs unanimously agreed to consult with their squads about conditional reductions and deferrals “amounting to 30% of total annual remuneration”, with negotiations set to start with captains on Saturday.
It is here, however, where there remains immense scope for even more politics.
The 20 club captains already had their own meeting on Friday morning, where they reclaimed a lot of moral high ground – and blindsided everyone from their own clubs to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and many other opportunistic politicians – by initiating a move to set up a fund for the NHS. It will be instructive to see how that works in the event of wage cuts, especially if donations to the fund are percentage-based.
This touches on one of the most contentious points of all: what the clubs can actually afford. Many players have been irritated at being made media targets, when the vast majority are willing to do their bit, and the feeling is that most clubs don’t yet need to cut the wages of non-playing staff. As has been pointed out by a few, they’ve still got the broadcasting money, and there is an irritation that this is ultimately at the behest of billionaire owners.
It should similarly be acknowledged that there is genuine concern among a few Premier League clubs, and some estimates have it that four could go into administration if even portions of the broadcasting money have to be given back. It is why they feel the need to act with players now.
It’s also why there has been some frustration about the early moves of Spurs and Newcastle, especially when so much is still unclear, not to mention the poor communication of it all. It’s not been a good week for Daniel Levy in terms of PR, but it’s probably been worse for PFA chief Gordon Taylor.
One of the other significant developments in all this is how the major players’ body has effectively been sidelined in the wage negotiations, showing their lack of clout. The clubs are now going straight to the captains. The message in the Whatsapps of some PFA members regarding their union, meanwhile, is “reform, reform, reform”.
The mood for change is growing.
The mood in the Premier League, meanwhile, has certainly changed. Friday’s long videoconference did not see as many ideas for playing out the season put forward, nor was there really the push for hard return dates that had been expected.
They have realised they just have to wait. They know they have to be flexible. Any plans set before May could just set them up for a fall, and make them look greedy and out of touch.
Uefa are meanwhile understood to be very pleased with the Premier League’s approach, especially as the continental body stresses a unified plan.
For their part, Uefa’s leadership has been praised by some in England. Many have felt it has been missing around the Premier League, as agitation and panic have taken hold.
The hope is that now changes, as the enormity of it all really does change minds.
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