With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus pandemic on a global scale, the English football season (like many across Europe) was suspended in the middle of March (2020) for the safety of players, officials, supporters and others. Hence, at the time of writing this (05-05-20) the season is still suspended and there seems to be an inability for footballs stakeholders and key decision makers to release to the public any clear plans or conclusions and there’s an overwhelming reluctance for many of them to take control and offer any form of leadership.

As someone who has quite publicly (and privately) vented their frustrations at the seeming inability (and/or willing) of the football authorities to ‘step up to the plate’ and resolve many of football’s ‘ills’, I have decided to put into words my ‘two pennneth’ on possible solutions.

Now I must point out that I am far from a ‘legal eagle’ (e.g. contract law, employment law or IP law) and neither am I a ‘financial wizard’ in terms of the economic implications of the possible solutions herein; it is just one man’s opinion and ideas as to POSSIBLE resolutions on a subject I have participated in for many years, in many guises from ‘grassroots’ to ‘elite’ football.

How should the 2019/20 English Football season contend with the impact of COVID-19? ......... maybe start with a few sensible concessions?

The overriding problem is that whatever solution is suggested (and implemented) not everyone is going to be happy, in fact I would say everyone is going to have to accept certain concessions (not the football communities strongest characteristic) to restore some point of normality in the future. Whether it be fans paying for TV subscriptions when there are no matches, playing games behind closed doors, players contracts expiring, paying players when they are not playing matches, clubs losing revenue for lost fixtures, leagues losing broadcast revenue from having to extend a rights contract for an extended period (or risk losing revenue) and likewise broadcasters having to renegotiate advertising contracts (or again risk losing revenue).

The Big Problem of ‘Football’s (often Dysfunctional) Family’ in Making Concessions

The fact is we cannot ‘turn back the clock’, no one can create more time to fit in those fixtures lost and football cannot buy a medical cure for the virus. And thus, it is the job and responsibility of those in privileged positions and paid to develop solutions, implement decisions and reach satisfactory (albeit not perfect) conclusions to resolve the issues – something they thus far seem unwilling or incapable of doing.

Initial Error of Aiming for Unrealistic Deadlines

There appears to have been an overriding desire by many football stakeholders and authorities to ‘draw lines in the sand’ and set deadlines for themselves and others (e.g. UEFA wanting leagues to make a decision on restarting their season by a set date), that are simply impractical in these circumstances.

At a time when the governments of many countries (with their comparatively vast resources when compared to football) are largely unable to set definitive deadlines themselves (e.g. for ‘lifting lockdowns’, allowing for travel) I can only think that in trying to set these deadlines, footballs ego’s are trying to do the impractical (if not impossible), or are they just attempting to be seen as doing something and being ‘in control’ if only for bravado?

Surely There Shouldn’t be JUST a ‘Plan A‘?

The simple fact is that by seemingly having just one plan and one goal in getting matches played as soon as possible, football is in my view making a ‘rod for its own back’. Maybe it all stems from football and some of footballs senior participants believing they are somewhat untouchable; money is the solution and that one set of rules apply to them and another set of rules to everyone else.

We must all recognise this virus doesn’t recognise laws, money or who people are; and that it is an indiscriminate killer irrelevant of age, race, gender and least of all, profession (e.g. footballer). Whilst people are dying of this pandemic, we must do all we can to preserve life, and despite the passion people have for the sport of football or the financial sacrifices they may have to make … other things are more important in this situation, thus sacrifices and concessions must be made.

It isn’t a matter of football authorities and stakeholders having their solitary plan A that facilitates all of their interests and agendas; they need a plan A, B, C, D ………. and if necessary, all the other letters of the alphabet.

So, What’s Your Plan ‘Mr Know It All’?

As I said earlier, I by no means pretend to have all the answers, in fact my suggestions are probably riddled with unforeseen problems and issues (e.g. legal and financial) …….. but my main feelings are that:

  • Football only resumes as and when it is safe for all (in terms of COVID-19) – players, officials and fans to be involved.

  • Football authorities and stakeholders refrain from setting definitive deadlines as to when something must happen.

  • Instead, football authorities and stakeholders have a set of plans and fluid timescales that are dependent on other factors. And as such; there isn’t JUST a ‘Plan A’, but a plethora of ‘plans’ from A, B, C, …….. and through to Z (if required).

Scenario/Plan A:

Set Flexible Timelines for Possible Recommencement of Football

The remainder of the EFL and Premier League 2019/20 Seasons are concluded over a shortened period, and with a shorter ‘off season’ before the commencement of the 2020/21 season. And before people start to moan (usually former players and managers/coaches) about players not having sufficient break, I would just point out they have just had the mid-season break many have been lamenting about for years (albeit under rather unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances).

With each of the divisions in the top 4 levels of English football having between a possible 9 and 13 league fixtures for any of the teams (e.g. a collective 92 league matches for Premier League clubs as it stands), plus 3 rounds of the FA Cup still to conclude, it is realistic (although somewhat congested) for these fixtures to be fulfilled in a space of 7-8 weeks (13 matches at most per club – approx. 2 matches per week for a club).

This would mean for the 2019/20 season to ‘end’ on:

  • 11th July 2020                                   
    A restart would have to happen by the 23rd May 2020, which I think I can safely say is not going to happen.
    Meaning the 2020/21 Season could viably (albeit not ideally) start on 8th August 2020 (the original scheduled start date for the season), with a reduced off-season (of 4 weeks).
  • 1st August 2020
    A restart would have to happen by the 13th June 2020
    Meaning the 2020/21 Season could viably start on 5th September 2020 – just over 1 month after the original scheduled date, with a reduced off-season (of 5 weeks).
  • 29th August 2020                             
    A restart would have to happen by the 11th July 2020
    Meaning the 2020/21 Season could viably start on 3rd October 2020 – just over 2 months after the original scheduled date, with a reduced off-season (of 5 weeks).

Thus, the 11th July 2020 is roughly the last date I envisage for a reasonable restart of the 2019/20 season, to help ensure the subsequent 2020/21 season is not to be severely impacted and over congested.

It should be noted however that even on this schedule there may be a requirement for some cup competitions to be truncated or even cancelled to allow for a reasonable schedule and fixture list (i.e. a season length reduced by approximately 22%; from 42 weeks to 33 weeks).

Scenario/Plan B:

(similar to A, but also : ) – Cancel the 2019/20 FA Cup

This is almost identical to Scenario/Plan A, however will allow for a greater spread of matches over the period of time for Premier League clubs – subject to those clubs who remain in the FA Cup (all being EPL clubs) and the FA being prepared to void the competition this will allow for 3 fixture rounds to be freed for league fixtures.

Obviously, this impacts on broadcast rights and would be a key issue for the FA, but this is ultimately the FAs concession to overcome the current situation (i.e. renegotiate/compensate broadcasters and sponsors) and also come to agreement with those clubs remaining in the competition over ‘prize money’.

Any European places due from the competition would be awarded to a remaining team in the cup competition based on the highest position in the league at the end/’closure’ of the season. 

Scenario/Plan C:

The 2019/20 Season Cannot Restart in 2020

This is obviously one of the worst-case scenarios for those involved in football, but it is by no means the reason for all to sulk and resign themselves to considered and collective failure.

The season is thus restarted on the 2nd January 2021 (if safe to do so) and the season becomes the 2019/21 season ……. and correct me if I am wrong is a season not “a definitive period of time” rather than being limited to one predefined window.

This scenario/plan will allow for 21 weeks for completion of the season on (or around) the 29th May 2021; approximately the date when the original 2020/21 season would have concluded.

Added to this this, it comfortably accommodates the remaining 13 league and FA cup rounds of competition that may exist for any one club, PLUS also possibly accommodate the remaining 5 rounds of European competition (whether UEFA would decide to maintain 2 legs or revert to 1 match rounds).

However, accommodating the League Cup (sorry Carabao Cup …. call me old fashioned 😊) may not be viable however, given the disrespect often shown to the competition by some Premier League clubs and the losses often incurred by lower league clubs, maybe this competition can take a break for the season. Maybe a period to experiment with an expanded EFL trophy that runs on a regional basis for the benefit of clubs who have suffered financially from the suspension of football beyond their control.

This scenario is obviously not pleasing for anyone, as a whole season is subsequently lost and as such revenues need to be adjusted, contracts amended/renegotiated and matches lost; but is the loss of matches not better than the loss of lives?

Scenario/Plan D –

A ‘Void’ Season – The most undesirable?

There is a scenario whereby it is just not possible to complete the 2019/20 football season, whether it is because of, for example; an extended lockdown, a second peak and second lockdown or mass gatherings and sporting events are still outlawed.

Yet if the virus had struck in the ‘out season’ and ‘lockdowns’ had been implemented by governments at that time –  I doubt there would have been so much debate as forthcoming seasons would have been delayed, football calendars redefined (especially with a fast approaching ‘winter World Cup’ in Qatar), if not cancelled altogether. Sure, football clubs and leagues would have suffered THE SAME hardships as many other companies and corporations would/have in their own respective industries; agreements and contracts would be renegotiated and amended (e.g. broadcast, sponsorships, employment) – if not void(able) on the basis of possible ‘legal frustration’.

However, the one overriding factor is that some will be unhappy if:

  • The football season (and results) are voided. Thus resulting ‘unfairly’ in some not being rewarded for their efforts in terms of promotion or championships, should these not be awarded.

  • The season is concluded and remaining fixtures expunged; resulting in places, prizes being awarded based on current position, averages or PPG (Points-Per-Game) calculations. Which will subsequently result in some (rightly) pleading their case that, should they have been allowed to complete their remaining fixtures the league outcome would have been different. Thus, possibly losing out on financial rewards of promotion and league places or regrettably counting the cost of a lower league position and even relegation.

There is unfortunately no positive outcome to this scenario (plan D), a lot of people will be unhappy should this come to pass. For me personally, a PPG resolution seems to be the fairest of all the options; but I know from this some will still feel it unjust. For example; should their team have more home fixtures remaining or they view their remaining fixtures as ‘easier’ and would possibly have yielded more success and points than those fixtures already fulfilled earlier in the season.

The only way to possibly soften the blow for some of those who are perceived to have suffered from this resolution is to adequately compensate them fairly from those who have not; granted it doesn’t fully compensate for example a relegated club who subsequently have to disband their squad and then cannot get promoted again ……… but surely this is better than seemingly endless and costly legal battles. 

Other Issues

Now whatever happens there are some issues that need to be addressed, if not accepted (if only for an interim period), which fall firmly at the door of footballs authorities and regulators (e.g. FIFA, UEFA, The FA, and the leagues). For the intervening period until football can get to some form of normality (post COVID-19), certain regulations will have to be relaxed if not amended to allow for the changes in circumstances affecting players, clubs and associations.

Player Contracts

The amount of debate over player contracts expiring come the end of the season is very prevalent, as in my opinion these are binding contracts of employment and not solely player registrations. And as such I foresee many legal battles should a player not be allowed to play for a club with whom he has a ‘pre contract agreement’ to sign with, or indeed an employer illegally trying to force a player to sign a contract extension with a club for an extended season.

As such the restrictions on the length of contract (e.g. minimum term to end of season, or next transfer window) will have to be revised, allowing for players and clubs to sign short term extensions to agreements to cover changes in the seasons.

Transfer ‘Windows’

Subsequently, there will also have to be a rescheduling and relaxing of the transfer window (and relevant regulations) for the intervening period as playing squads will (to an extent) be rather mixed and unbalanced with short term contracts possibly coming to an end and the need to rebalance squads and budgets. Therefore FIFA (plus the confederations and national associations) will need to change the transfer window dates for this period of adjustment. However it is absolutely crucial this does not affect the integrity of the competition with no windows whatsoever, as this may  well allow for such situations as: (i) clubs signing players for the remainder of a delayed season who were not in their squads already, or (ii) signing players towards the end of a season to give themselves an advantage.

3+2 Rule

The ‘3 and/plus 2 rule’ must be suspended given the possible changes to player contracts and transfer windows, and although potential breaches are comparatively rare with regards to the 3 and 2 rule (i.e. a player playing for a maximum of 2 clubs, and being registered with a maximum of 3 in any one season – subject to overlapping international seasons) – under such unique circumstances it is wholly possible this may well occur.

European Complications

By this, I don’t mean the relationship between a certain Mr Farage and his ‘friends’ in Europe but more so the UEFA competitions (Champions League and Europa League) which as I mentioned earlier still seemingly have 5 fixtures remaining in the 2019/2020 season. And whilst I recognise the implications of this both financially (for the clubs involved and UEFA), and in terms of future competition, this is a matter for UEFA to resolve and surely the priority has to be national/domestic competitions.

Similar to the scenarios already mentioned in relation to English football, UEFA should have multiple plans and scenarios to address this which are very complex with issues of not just existing competitions, but the rightful qualification to future ones. They could suspend, void, cancel or merge competitions as with domestic competitions; but again, UEFA and associated parties (e.g. clubs, sponsors, broadcasters) will all have to make concessions.

In Summary

Put simply, the impact of the COVID-19 is far bigger than football; it affects people and takes peoples lives. Surely it is time for all of football’s stakeholders and authorities, whether clubs, fans, players, unions, leagues etc to accept they all have to drop the posturing, forget their own (often selfish) agendas and make reasoned concessions.

Without this acceptance we will at best; be stuck at a seemingly endless impasse, stuck in a world of resentment and legal disputes or at worst put many lives at risk if only for status and financial preservation. Do I regret this time as an authorised football agent?