Liverpool supporters at Anfield
League leaders Liverpool won't be able to keep their fans away if they're allowed to finish the season (image: James Harrison (BY-NC-ND))

Public safety is taking a back seat as the rich clubs and government ministers thrash out a plan to get the Premier League show back on the road. Trevor Fisher looks at the implications.

The virus crisis is showing up the government’s failings daily, but so far the crisis in English football has flown under the radar. Political interference in the English Premier League is now outrageous, and designed to create a false feelgood factor. The government via culture secretary Oliver Dowden has taken a hands-on role which exceeds the government’s rightful role in setting the public health policy of the UK.

In late April the government began to make interventions in various sports with regular meetings with senior medical directors – perfectly reasonably. However, then football’s Premier League took on a special role which exceeded reasonable behaviour. Dowden stated that “I personally have been in talks with the Premier League with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible… Of course any such moves would have to be consistent with public health guidance”.

The same BBC report said the June 8th restart plan was “to fit in with UEFA’s competition plans. This would require full training to begin by 18th May”. And these arbitrary deadlines do not fit with testing and medical requirements. The chief doctor of FIFA, Michel d’Hooghe, was reported on 28th April saying the season should be scrapped. “I know why they want to play,” he said. “It’s for the television rights… [but] there is contact on the field between players… every player having his own dressing room is impossible…”. This is of course confirmation that no contact team sport can go ahead till the virus is beaten. Rugby is affected as are all contact sports, but the immediate issue is the English Premier League.

The virus is not the priority

Sadly the priority for the Premier League and its political overseers is not the virus. There has been a nod to the need for social distancing by making the planned games behind closed doors, but this fails on two grounds. Firstly, fans cannot be forced to stay at home and will travel to big games. The most obvious example is likely champions Liverpool, and the Mayor of Liverpool said on 30th April the restart is a “non starter” and he fears fans will gather at Anfield. He is right, and the demands on the police should make this scheme impossible.

Secondly, if the rules apply across the board as they must, then this system should happen in the lower divisions. No mention of these has been forthcoming and the non league clubs have been kicked into the long grass. But currently the financial and sporting implications of the proposed Premier League system affect the whole game. Matches behind closed doors can be financed by TV in the Premier League but not in the lower divisions. Unless the clubs can get ticket revenue, they go bankrupt. Live TV on a free-to-air basis would have to operate across the four divisions and this is impossible.

The current proposals, all aimed at the Premier League, are driven partly by government desire to claim things are getting back to normal, and by a minority of rich clubs who want to be able to run a system which is not open to clubs in the lower divisions, where paying customers are essential. But these longer term issues are not currently the main focus, as the leading clubs are now trying to impose an outcome on relegation and promotion which is neither equitable or rational

The promotion and relegation crisis

The Tory-supported plan for a Premier League resumption on neutral grounds led to a dispute over the unfairness of changing the venues, which penalises clubs with good home form and to demands for a suspension of relegation. A sensible proposal if the season cannot be ended was greeted with outrage, particularly from the ‘Big Six’ clubs who apparently vote as a block, though there is probably a majority of Premier League clubs in favour because of TV money. However, the consequences of suspending relegation affect the Championship and their interests are not currently on the agenda – nor that of Divisions 1 and 2. Non-league football has already been terminated for this season, with no concern for their clubs’ financial and sporting future.

The behaviour of the richest clubs is abysmal – and as I am an Aston Villa supporter whose club would benefit from suspending relegation, I need to be open. But the reality is that with the medical reasons for ending the season obvious, the willingness of the richest clubs to defend their riches is something to behold. One unnamed executive was quoted attacking the relegation-threatened clubs, saying: “They are threatening to destroy football just to avoid the risk of relegation. Their thinking is so short sighted”. It’s the other way round. The Premier League is dancing to a short-term government policy. Even if the medical arguments for ending the season were not overwhelming, the implications of behind-closed-doors games should torpedo these proposals.

The policeman in charge of national policing, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, was quoted by the BBC as saying “if people start gathering and causing public health or public order issues that might mean that game can’t actually go on”. Back to what the Liverpool Mayor said!

The left has little interest in sport, and football has not been a major issue for policy makers. But the Tory intervention has raised the stakes. While Labour should not at the moment intervene, the next week will raise the stakes markedly. The pressure applied to the Premier League clubs will probably force them to accept behind-closed-doors games with relegation, in the interests of the richest clubs. But at that point the problems intensify. It is clear the Premier League is the new Game of Thrones, and it is a serious mistake to allow politicians to intervene. When in a hole, stop digging.

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