The English Premier League could learn something from universities
By Nick March
Project Restart, the English Premier League’s plan to finish the 2019-20 football season, has become an inelegant game of kicking the can down the road.
This week the league met following the UK Government’s announcement that elite sport could begin again in June, so long as matches were played behind closed doors. Even so, it is clear that the clubs find few points of agreement over what happens next. More meetings are scheduled over the coming days.
Those points of difference may be driven by self-interest over this season’s outstanding matters or by an understandable degree of caution given the ongoing pandemic. To date, more than 225,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the UK and more than 32,000 people have died.
Several top football players have articulated their unease at the prospect of football rushing back into action, particularly when rates of infection remain high and the strains on the health service are still evident.
Newcastle United’s Danny Rose summed up those sentiments when he said this week: “I am sad that people are getting sick and being affected. Football should be the last thing that needs to be sorted.”
Many matters need careful consideration, including the testing regime that would need to be put in place to stage matches and the inevitable diversion of resources away from the health service if any of the players were injured in a game. It is also clear that even one positive Covid-19 test would throw the whole fragile process back into uncertainty.
How the Premier League proceeds from here is a matter of great interest, not just for fans but for a wider audience, as the most-watched football league in the world should be seen to set the standards rather than follow them.
Other European leagues have charted their own course: the Bundesliga resumes in Germany this weekend, despite more players testing positive this week, while the French Ligue 1 has already abandoned the 2019-20 season, declared its champions and relegated two clubs. Legal challenges to those decisions are looming.
The better way for the EPL to proceed would be to seek counsel from outside sport and also to find some answers in football’s history. There are solutions to be found in both of them and, indeed, by learning from mistakes of the decision-making elsewhere.
For instance, tertiary education in the UK has responded to Covid-19 by developing a ‘no-detriment policy’ for undergraduates and postgraduates, which means that a student’s grades will not be negatively affected by this year’s pandemic.
Tottenham and England defender Danny Rose said this week: “I am sad that people are getting sick and being affected. Football should be the last thing that needs to be sorted.”
The Premier League could follow the same logic. Matches cannot be held under anything close to normal conditions and the coronavirus is beyond the sport’s control, so the season should not be restarted, but it should not be declared void either. There should be recognition and understanding that a radical new approach is needed to find solutions.
To settle this season's league, teams should stay in the positions in the table they are now. There should be no relegation or detriment for the class of 2019-20, but those clubs below the top tier should not be punished by having their pathway to promotion blocked by the negative impact of the season being considered incomplete.
Instead, the league should be expanded to invite the top three teams from the Championship into the Premier League next season. The FA Cup and European competitions are a separate negotiation, but there is a pressing need to accept things have changed and won't easily go back to the way they were. Realistically, the mooted June return date is just that. It is a guess, albeit an educated one, that the situation may be better by then.
And what does football history tell us?
It is a matter of British sporting folklore that Blackpool were top of the English league when the 1939-40 season was abandoned at the outset of the Second World War in September 1939. Subsequent seasons during wartime, such as they were, were played out regionally.
If the ‘no detriment’ Premier League were to come into existence, it should split into two regions – north and south – similar to the system that the Football League’s associate members, as they were referred to then, played under until the 1950s.
This revised EPL could also consider only playing each opponent once, in a system akin to the NFL, and having a playoff system between the regions as a finale, as happened during the Second World War. The aim would be to provide more breaks in the calendar in case football had to stop once more.
The goal must also be to play matches in front of at least some spectators when football does belatedly restart.
The problems with fulfilling fixtures behind closed doors are multiple. Football is about more than the game, it is about spectacle, community and support. EPL matches being played out in front of banks of empty seats reinforces two things.
First, the long-term commodification of the game and more specifically, that in the connected relationships between clubs, supporters and broadcasters, the link that really matters is the one between television contracts and sporting organisations. That reality will eventually sit uncomfortably with fans, if it does not do so already.
Earlier this month in these pages, columnist Tom Fletcher wrote that post-pandemic nations will be judged on whether they were led by reason or emotion in this crisis. Football is a game of emotions, but its hierarchy must use reason to take its next step and it must do so guided by safety and science. They must also accept that the process of opening up is much harder than locking down.