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It might be football – but not as we know it

English football's so-called 'leaders' are desperate to complete the 2019/20 season behind closed doors - irrespective of the Coronavirus - but at what cost?

As far as the likes of Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke are concerned, that cost is measurable by one overriding factor – avoiding the risk of repaying hundreds of millions of pounds to broadcasters, including Sky, BT and Qatar-based, beIN.

The clamour to see football return – based solely on financial grounds – is distasteful to say the least. If it wasn’t for the Premier League’s apparent desperation to hang on to their TV money, would there be such an appetite to rush to play games in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic? The answer is surely an emphatic ‘no’.

Alas, ‘money talks’, especially for the top flight of English football, where match day attendances and gate receipts are dwarfed by the spondoolies from Sky and BT Sport.

The economic reality of the Premier League is that supporters play second fiddle to the broadcasters. It's been true for many a year. If there’s any truth to rumours that Sky and BT want to pipe in ‘atmospherics’ and superimpose crowd graphics in the stands, it will further lay waste to the adage, ‘football without fans is nothing.’

It’ll be football, but not as we know it, not as we want it and certainly not how it should be.

Germany’s Bundesliga will be the first European elite division to resume this weekend, but many fans are indifferent to the resumption. The games behind closed doors, are already being labelled as ‘ghost matches’. Disenchanted supporters claim it will break the emotional connection between them and their clubs.

Borussia Moenchengladbach have even encouraged fans to buy personalised cardboard cut-outs to ‘fill’ their stadium. I suppose it’s one way of trying to prevent supporters being labelled as ‘plastics’!

Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, in his infinite wisdom, has suggested resuming the Premier League – complete with all its artificialities – will, ‘...lift the spirits of the nation.’

The results from a subsequent YouGov poll of 2,098 adults delivered a different opinion. Only 19% agreed, with a hefty 73% stating the polar opposite. One can only assume the poll was not taken in Liverpool!

As one of the richest and best run clubs in world football, Manchester City are in a strong position to withstand the worst of the economic and commercial ravages of the pandemic.

The same cannot be said of lower league clubs in England, for whom a scenario of having to fulfil this season’s fixtures without fans, adds up to financial suicide – no, make that homicide – if it is imposed on Leagues One and Two.

Compare and contrast the disparities between the likes of City and one of the EFL’s smallest clubs, Accrington Stanley. Both are blessed with excellent owners and chairmen – City have Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al Mubarak – Stanley have Andy Holt.

The respective budgets are light years apart, the philosophies and objectives very different, but both entities are based on sound business acumen, with an emphasis on benefitting their respective communities.

City will be one of the beneficiaries from the TV mega bucks if the unimaginatively named, ‘Project Restart’ goes ahead. They’d also accrue millions more, via TV coverage of the FA Cup and Champions League – competitions in which they are presently classed as favourites.

Accrington will be out and out losers if the EFL compel them to play their remaining 11 games. There’s no TV money on offer at The Wham Stadium, no gate receipts – the lifeblood of the club – only costs and more costs. Players and staff would have to be taken off the Government furlough scheme and wages paid. Away games will entail travel and hotel bills.

How could Stanley be expected to fund the expensive corononavirus testing required to, theoretically, ensure the health and safety of players and staff?

All told, Stanley would be something like £500,000 down and for what?

When football went on indefinite hold, they were 17th in League One, eight points and four places above the relegation zone – pretty steady and well set for a mid-table finish.

I’ve had first hand dealings with Andy Holt, he’s the personification of integrity, a man of honour, an individual who’s been calling for fundamental change to English football’s financial pyramid, long before Covid19. He seems to have won backing from EFL Chairman, Rick Parry who, in warning of a £200m hole in the EFL's budget by September, is lobbying for a radical overhaul of the game's fiscal structure. It will be interesting to see how the ex-Chief Executive of the Premier League and later, Liverpool, stands up for the rights of the 47 EFL members in Leagues One and Two.

It’s a measure of Holt, that he was offering to refund Stanley season ticket holders for any remaining games, a fortnight before lockdown and any postponing or abandonment of games – the first club owner to do so. He showed the sort of leadership then, which is so woefully lacking now in the Premier League, the FA and the Professional Footballers Association. The jury's presently out on Parry.

Holt and Stanley don’t lack ambition – of course they want to win games and trophies – but the primary goal is, and always will be, survival and long term sustainability, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

It’s an entirely different ball game to that lived and played by modern day Manchester City.

An unfulfilled fixture list would doubtless lead to arguments and most likely legal challenges, in relation to relegations and promotions, regardless of at what level.

TV money is the primary motivation for Project Restart. Any blather from the FA and Premier League about ‘preserving the integrity of the game’ is a very distant second. The resumption of English football – if it happens – cannot be a one-size fits all edict. It patently does not.

By David Walker

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