The current football lockdown will not continue that long, but normal service cannot resume any time soon.
Early May is usually the climax of the football season, with championships, cups, play-offs and relegation deciders. Not this year, alas. The Premier League still believes it can get some sort of ersatz set-up going in June, played in neutral stadia in front of TV cameras, perhaps with cardboard figures in the stands and recorded crowd noises but no goal celebrations – as they are apparently thinking of doing in the Bundesliga.
This may, for a while, satisfy the TV channels, shirt sponsors, betting companies, armchair fans and followers in China or India, plus the assorted Russian oligarchs, Arab princelings and American chancers who now own elite football. The Premier League does not really need paying crowds to function, at least in the short term.
However, the vast majority of the hundreds of professional and semi-professional teams making up our national game cannot possibly survive without people coming through the gates in adequate numbers. Without the paying customers and the sponsors who advertise to them, our complicated and hugely diverse football ecology – from Charlton Athletic to Great Wakering Rovers, from Huddersfield Town to Gainsborough Trinity, from Hamilton Academicals to Cove Rangers – cannot survive.
Many lower-league teams are already being subsidised through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. But this cannot continue for much longer. Football is facing crucial decisions.
Many are clinging to a desperate hope that, despite the premature end to this season, football can begin again in August or September. But it is not going to – at least, not as a viable proposition. Social distancing, whether imposed by government or by the reticence of a fearful public unwilling to take risks with its health, means that significant attendances at football matches are just not feasible for some considerable time. The sooner the Championship, the EFL, the Scottish League, the National League and the myriad semi-pro competitions realise this, the better.
They should declare now that the 2020-2021 season will not take place. This will be hugely costly for clubs who have players under contract and other major financial commitments, but it will make it possible to make players redundant, renegotiate other commitments, seek new forms of financial backing, and batten down the hatches till better times.
The alternative is to incur even more costs by attempting to play a season in front of tiny crowds subject to social distancing rules, and liable at any moment to renewed lockdown if the R value creeps over 1 again. Such a season would surely kill off many clubs and reduce competitions to a farce as teams dropped out.
Football during the war continued in low-key form with scratch teams made up of guest players who were available on leave from the army or other wartime employment, playing in small-scale regional leagues and cup competitions. It did so without huge injections of public money, and all league teams and most non-league teams survived the war intact.
Something like that might be possible, to keep up interest and bring in a little income. But trying to pretend things will soon be back to normal is pointless.
The government must make it clear in advance that it is not going to step in to bail clubs out if they go ahead with unrealistic plans for next season. As I have argued before, many clubs have in recent seasons been very badly run. Using government funding to shore them up (over and above the general support measures available to all sectors) should be unacceptable, particularly given the many other demands on taxpayers’ money at the moment and for the foreseeable future.
League officials, club owners and fans must be in no doubt that the game’s future is in their hands, not those of the government.