This weekend, professional football returns. As a lifelong football fan, I normally look forward to the start of a new season. This year, the prospect fills me with real apprehension.
For the armchair Premier League supporter, whether in the UK, Nigeria or Shanghai, a repeat of the ersatz televised spectacle we saw in the early summer, with teams playing in front of empty stadia with badly-dubbed crowd noises, may satisfy. And it is possible that TV contracts, advertising revenue and foreign owners with bottomless pockets will keep our top teams in tolerable financial shape for the time being, though there may be cuts in playing and non-playing staff here and there.
For the other 95 per cent of professional and semi-professional clubs in England, and most clubs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, the season could be disastrous.
Over 700 clubs enter the FA Cup each year. Almost all will make some payments to their players. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus women’s teams, add another 200 clubs to the mix of professional football. However modest the payments, their cost, plus the unavoidable costs of staging games, paying utility bills, travel, purchasing and maintaining equipment and kit and so on mean that even running teams at steps five or six of the non-league pyramid takes many tens of thousands of pounds a year. At levels one and two of the English Football League, it costs millions.
Without supporters being allowed into grounds, revenue will shrink to virtually nothing for most of these clubs. Apart from gate receipts, non-elite clubs rely on fans spending money in bars, clubhouses and club shops.
Sponsorship is also very important, but this is not the big money handed over to the likes of Manchester United, with their “global partners” such as Chevrolet, their “official kit suppliers” (Adidas) and their “official carriers” (Aeroflot, bizarrely).
It is instead local estate agents, amusement parks, Indian restaurants and care homes paying a few hundred pounds for an advertising hoarding and a mention in the programme. There is little incentive to fork out when there is nobody to see the hoardings or read the non-existent programme – especially when the pandemic means your own business prospects are shaky.
In planning for this season, the FA and the professional leagues have, I fear, made a serious – if understandable – error. They had too much faith in our panicking politicians and their capricious scientific advisors.
Their assumption was that Covid-19 was gradually coming under control, meaning rules keeping professional sport in quarantine would be relaxed – if not for the start of the season, at least fairly soon after it started. Various pilot events, allowing small “crowds” to gather subject to social distancing and a host of restrictions, have taken place or are planned. It was looking as if there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Not so after this week‘s events. It now looks as though any return to stadia will be postponed for many weeks or months. In Scotland, where a partial return was planned for later in September, the shutters have come down again with Nicola Sturgeon fearing that Covid-19 infection is rising sharply. She is, however, allowing previously planned pilot games at Aberdeen and Ross County to take place this Saturday. Aberdeen – whose ground holds over 20,000 – will be allowed to admit just 300 fans for their game against Kilmarnock.
These poor saps will have their temperatures taken before being permitted to enter, will have to register their identity, must keep two metres apart at all times and must not leave the ground until they are told to. They will not be allowed – no kidding – to chant, sing or shout. That alone would raise my temperature.
If this is the future of spectator sport until the wonder vaccine is discovered, professional football is doomed. Even if clubs are eventually allowed to admit fans, indications are it will only be to a fraction, probably 30 per cent, of capacity. This privilege is likely to be rescinded if spectators don’t stick to the rules and boo and jump about, as any spectator under 80 has done since a pig’s bladder was first inflated.
In addition, whack-a-mole local lockdowns are likely to play havoc with the fixture list, as are any minor outbreaks of Covid-19 amongst playing squads.
Unless there is a fundamental change in our rulers’ mindset, and people are allowed to take reasonable risks in their daily lives, I seriously think that professional football below the Premier League should consider closing down for the duration, as it did during two world wars in the last century.
Otherwise, clubs are just going to be spending huge amounts to maintain competitions which are inaccessible to fans and liable to frequent disruption. Many footballers were furloughed during lockdown, helping to keep clubs in business. Given the huge new calls on public spending, they cannot expect any further financial help from the government. They should cut their losses and stop pretending it will somehow all work out fine. Otherwise many clubs will not survive the 2020-21 season.