So here we are in the final days of May and still no decision has been agreed on how to end this season.
Club owners have put forward numerous ‘league integrity’ badged plans to continue or end this season, generally dependant on their league placing...
The cynic in me would say that the holy grail of league fixture integrity went out the window last August when Bury folded and Bolton were forced to play the kids for 5 league games whilst still in administration, thanks mainly to EFL approved dodgy owners. During the season, other clubs such as Charlton, Southend, Macclesfield & Oldham seemed to be staring into the financial abyss, even before Coronavirus made an appearance on our shores.
Anyhow, the issue now is trying to complete this season whilst clubs still retain the players they started it with. As widely stated in both the media and the football industry itself, a significant number of players will be out of contract in just a months time after 30 June. There is an EFL agreement in place that clubs pay players for up to one month post contract if they are still without a club. This has been muted as an option to also extend player contracts to 31 July, thus giving more time for games to be played. Another option is to simply allow short term extensions on player contracts to the seasons end, whenever that may be. The reality however is that players do not need to agree to it. Nor do clubs need to offer it.
In addition, many clubs, Bolton included, have already released players they had on loan. This could be up to eight first team players at some clubs. Will they be recalled by the leasing clubs, be allowed to return by their parent clubs or even want to return if recalled? What about players who had been loaned out to other clubs? Can a parent club use these returning players to fill the gaps left by players they had on loan but who didn’t come back?
Finally, what happens when you factor in the impact of Coronavirus itself. Will players take the risk? Yes, it is statistically unlikely that a young healthy athlete will die. But that’s not the full story. If a player is one of the unlucky few, then currently it seems that little can be done other than give him oxygen and palliative care. The medical profession is making huge strides but in reality, anti viral drugs and/or new procedures to reduce the impact of severe illness aren’t ready yet.
Furthermore, if a player survives but has been seriously ill, what is the risk that he is left with an underlying condition that, whilst maybe insignificant in the normal world, is enough to stop him performing at the level he is currently at? Will he be compensated for a shortened career? What if he has high risk family members living with him? He may be asymptotic and pass the virus onto those more vulnerable with potentially devastating consequences. Can clubs afford the cost of regular testing, estimates stating around £140k per club for this season alone? Do squads need to isolate for the duration of the campaign in a squad ‘isolation bubble’, meaning additional costs of accommodation and possibly having to isolate away from their families for a month or two or more?
By its very nature playing professional football is a high risk undertaking and as with many people when young, risk appetite is higher than in other age groups. But some players will have perfectly good reason to not wish to come back just yet and that will have yet another impact on a clubs ability to put a squad together.
The simple fact is that we are now WAY past the point where we can guarantee completing this campaign with the squads the clubs had on strength last March. Different teams equate to different results which equates to different final standings to what would’ve happened if COVID had not thrown a weighty spanner into the leagues fixture schedule engine.
In Bolton’s case, the irony is that there is a possibility that we could very well end up playing just kids at both the start and end of this season. League two prep or unneeded spankings, you decide.
Ultimately the point is that owners need to either accept or fess up to the simple reality that ‘league fixture integrity’ has completely gone for this season.
So what is the best way forward, particularly when clubs have so many differing solutions and motivations?
Firstly, club owners and CEO’s need to kick the legal threats into touch. This season wasn’t planned with Coronavirus in mind and whatever solution is chosen will not be perfect. Some club owners need to stop the bully boy antics to get their way and accept that the survival of ALL clubs should be the paramount deciding factor.
Secondly and following on from the first point, we need to ensure the survival of as many clubs as possible. It is simply unacceptable that some clubs go to the wall just so that the EFL can complete its fixture list. As we know all too well in Bolton and Bury, football clubs are at the heart of many a local community and losing them or having effectively torn apart will have a massive impact to the game going forward.
Thirdly, we need a way forward that is adaptable to as many needs as possible but above all, is as fair a solution as can be had.
Null and voiding the season, as being advocated by Ron Martin, owner of relegation no-hopers Southend, was one option that, quite rightly in my opinion, has been booted out by the EFL. Yes, for clubs such as Bolton, where relegation is a roaring certainty, cancelling this season would be an unexpected let off. But we need to be honest with ourselves and look at the bigger picture. If this campaign had been postponed before it was half completed or even before the January transfer window, then I think clubs would have every justification to bin the season. However we are now over three quarters of the way through and recognition needs to be given to that fact. Put it this way, if this pandemic had happened 3 years ago during our L1 promotion campaign, how would you have felt if the season was null and voided 36 games in? I for one would’ve been incensed. That great chance of bouncing back to the Championship at the first attempt, particularly with our club needing the following seasons Championship TV money to survive and it all then just gets taken away! No refund on player salary outgoings to cover losses for that season! No chance of a reasonable rescue package with Anderson still in charge!! Nothing. Doesn’t sound too great now does it.
Another option is to carry on as soon as it’s safe to do so. However, not all clubs are in a position to take the financial hit to do that. Behind closed door games with no or little additional TV revenue, virus testing costs, furloughed staff to bring back and pay, players deferred wages switching to full pay are just some of the issues. It’s all very well for those clubs with SOMETHING to play for and an engaged fan base to spur them on, even if from afar, but it’s hard to justify losing up to £500k, as some owners have stated, when there’s NOTHING to play for and their fans just wanting this season to end.
Fleetwood owner Andy Pilley even came up with a plan where some of next seasons payments were advanced to cover this seasons costs as an emergency measure. That may work for well run clubs who are doing this as a genuine one off. But unfortunately not all clubs have been well run or have a rich owner to cover previous losses. Any Bolton fan could tell Andy Pilley that covering the financial hit of completing this season using income meant for future seasons will likely only end in clubs going under at a later date due to lack of cash.
So, with league integrity gone anyway, completing the season loses a lot of its appeal for many clubs.
Another and more likely option is Points Per Game (PPG) or Weighted PPG when the home/away games left to play ratio is taken into account. This effectively gives a points tally for a clubs remaining games based on how they’ve done in the previous 34-36 games. However, after initially supporting this idea, I have to agree with Posh owner, Darragh MacAnthony, that using a spreadsheet is no way to complete a season.
For me, we should pretty much freeze the league as it is. An element of PPG will be needed to cover games in hand and therefore level all teams off on 36 games. Then we need a massive reality check or, at the very least, an acceptance by all the L1 clubs of how teams have done so far.
Coventry certainly and Rotherham probably, deserve automatic promotion. Due to the fact that the next six teams are so close, then let them have a six team playoff to find a winner in whatever format floats their boat.
For relegation, Southend and unfortunately, Bolton are doomed to League 2. Do I want to see another season in L2? Well no obviously as frankly, a Wrexham away win apart, it’s shit. But I’m quite prepared to suck it up so long as I can see my team actually compete on a level footing for the first time in probably three years. I think Tranmere are stretching it to get a relegation playoff against Wimbledon to be honest but, again, if that’s what the Dons, possibly Rochdale & Tranmere agree to do, then crack on.
This scenario allows the teams that want to continue playing, because they still have something to play for, to do so, whilst the rest of us can start planning for next season without losing money unnecessarily.
But whatever decision is reached, the pressure is on both the EFL and the current league club owners to ensure that all clubs start next season or be forevermore damned as putting self serving interests before the integrity of the football league pyramid. Let’s hope that come Friday, they can come to a sensible decision.