As I type this, it is two months to the day since it was announced that Mikel Arteta had tested positive for Covid-19 and football across the United Kingdom was postponed soon afterwards.
Or, should I say only two months, since it feels like a lifetime ago at this point?
So much in our lives has changed over the last nine weeks, so many old habits have been broken and new ones have been enforced. So many avenues of engagement and entertainment have been closed off yet others have opened up in their place and it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine our lives picking up where they left off before this pandemic placed its grip upon the world.
When this all finally clears, the world will have changed dramatically.
So, why are we working under the assumption that football will be the exception and be the same as before?
The current season hasn’t been paused as if your pet sat on the remote control by mistake.
Just like everything else in our lives right now, it is suspended in a state of limbo that needs certain requirements to be met, and those requirements are a lot more stringent than we are comfortable with.
For all the talk about maintaining the integrity of competitions and wanting to engage in a spirit of sporting fairness, we all know why the Premier League and other major leagues want these games to be played; money, or more to the point, not wanting to give money back to TV companies because clubs have already spent it.
Every report and leak given to journalists over the last couple of weeks has been to gauge the public reaction towards their plans for a return and how little they have to change in order to ‘restart’ the league.
Yet, as the days and weeks continue to blur into one, the idea that we can pick up where we left off as if nothing has changed is getting more and more unrealistic. If the last nine games of the season have to be played, (10 for Arsenal, but the less I think about the prospect of playing Manchester City away, the better) then it has to be accepted that they’ll be played under vastly modified conditions, and that those conditions will favour some clubs over others.
Is it fair that Aston Villa will have to play six of its ‘home’ games without fans present, but Southampton will only have four? Of course not. But do you think Villa will be more upset at the prospect of losing home advantage, or the prospect of losing its place at the money buffet that is the Premier League?
There are decisions over the next few weeks that will have to be made to ensure the long-term viability of a number of football clubs, and they are going to be made by people that are only interested in the short-term viability of their profit margins.
We’ve already had a precursor of what might happen, thanks to the French Football Association calling a halt to Ligue 1 and declaring the current standings as final. Amiens and Toulouse have launched legal proceedings against the decision, primarily due to their position in the relegation zone when the league was suspended. That’s understandable, even if it’s a last ditch attempt to hold on to survival. But Lyon have also filed an appeal to the courts because they now won’t qualify for European football as they lie seventh in the table.
If the Premier League decide upon a similar course of action and use either simple PPG or weighted PPG to decide final positions, you can guarantee that someone will take them to the courts over it.
There’s just too much money at stake for them to not bring in the lawyers. In sporting terms, asking a club to take a hit for the good of the game and try to bounce back the following season is not an unreasonable one. But with so many clubs reliant on Premier League money flowing in to maintain their viability as a business, all of them will be keen for someone else to take the bullet instead.
That’s why all public statements coming from clubs have been based on how much they ‘would’ play the rest of the season before trying to explain why they don’t want to.
Nobody wants to be the first to say they won’t restart unless the league is played under consistent conditions from start to finish, because; A) it might be 18 months before fans feel comfortable enough to fill a stadium again, and B) if games don’t get played, then someone will sue for loss of earnings and the club(s) that say no would be held liable.
In the same manner that the British government came out last weekend and said that it was safe to go back to work, even though it isn’t, and that you can go see your family in another house, even though you can’t, and that testing is being done at a record pace, even though it’s not, the Premier League are scrambling to find a way of putting together a plan that suits their own needs without them being liable for any damages if things go pear-shaped again.
First, it was the insistence of playing games at neutral venues with the police saying that crowds outside ‘home’ grounds would be impossible to manage. Only when it was pointed out that no matter where Liverpool win the league, and you can place money on them to do just that, there will be a crowd outside because their fans will want to celebrate, and keeping the identity of that ground secret would be impossible because the game will be live on TV, did this idea go away.
Then there are the TV companies themselves. Will they be happy with a substandard product on their screens?
All eyes will be on BT Sport this weekend with the return of the Bundesliga, but a Borussia Dortmund home game without any fans is not something that makes me rush to my wallet to buy a subscription for.
Finally, there’s the assumption that when (if) football starts again in a few weeks, teams will be at full strength. We’re already seeing the likes of Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling making statements regarding their unease at playing in such uncertain conditions. Will Covid-19 be treated just like a hamstring pull? Will players be forced into turning up for work? Conversely, will players hide symptoms in order to play an important game?
Over the next few months, football will have to operate under conditions that it will never want to operate under again, and there will be long-lasting ramifications.
The sooner we accept it won’t be perfect, the better.
After all, the last time a stoppage like this occurred, Arsenal were promoted into Division 1 for no sporting reason whatsoever, and that turned out ok, didn’t it?