What happens next? Nobody knows, and that includes the sporting authorities in England, and beyond. How the coronavirus will progress, how long the lockdown will last, what might happen were the virus outbreak to flare up again when lockdowns are relaxed…all of it is unknowable. And all of it makes the Football Association’s decision on Thursday to void this season for all clubs below the National League North and South (the sixth tier of English men’s football) and below the Women’s Championship (the second tier) utterly baffling.
What is gained by such a radical act? Nobody knows when football will be able to restart. Perhaps the 2020-21 season will be able to restart as scheduled in August, but perhaps not. And if not, what then? Next season would have to be truncated anyway, meaning that, in effect, two seasons would have been ruined by the virus.
There should be three strands to any decision-making process: logistical, legal and moral. Let’s begin with the moral case for finishing 2019-20: That football has happened; It cannot be unhappened. Liverpool deserves to win the title, just as Norwich, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford and West Ham deserve to be in a relegation fight.
Nobody deserves what has happened to South Shields. A former league club based a few miles east of Newcastle and north of Sunderland, it has been progressing well over the past few years. It’s invested significantly but sensibly. When the break came, it was 12 points clear of FC United of Manchester at the top of the Northern Premier League and almost certain to be promoted to the National League North. And suddenly, through no fault of its own, all the results that got it there have been scrubbed, even though the league it is looking to get into still hasn’t been voided. It’s no less unfair, no less damaging, just because South Shields is in the seventh tier and not the Premier League. Little wonder the club is contemplating legal action.
This brings us to that second issue. It’s not just about Liverpool winning the title or Leeds and West Brom being promoted, or even about clubs hoping to qualify for the Champions League. It’s also about prize money. Sheffield United, for instance, is on course for the biggest payday in the club’s history. There are a lot of clubs that might end up feeling cheated, and a lot who may consider going to court to rectify that. Then there are television contracts to be fulfilled and fans who have bought season tickets; in every instance, it seems easier, neater and fairer for the league to pick up where it left off.
Despite the public comments of Karren Brady, vice chair of West Ham, and of one other unnamed Premier League chairman, that does seem to be the majority view among clubs. There seems also to be a growing acceptance that it may be that the season is finished behind closed doors in the summer as a way of getting it done. And while playing games behind closed doors represents something of risk, it is clearly far easier to test everybody involved and ensure nobody is carrying the virus if you’re dealing with the two teams and managerial staff plus medics, television companies and logistical staff than with 40,000 fans plus security, stewards, barmen, chefs and sales assistants.
If the season can’t be finished until well after the scheduled start of next season then, frankly, so what? Next season can be amended, a new schedule drawn up with knowledge of how long there is to play the games. If 2020-21 can’t start until January, then perhaps everybody plays everybody else only once.
If it’s later, then a group system could be deployed. The Premier League, for instance, could become four groups of five: everybody plays everybody home and away, with the top two going through to quarterfinals and the bottom sides sent to a playoff for relegation. Winning the league would then consist of 13 games (assuming quarters and semis are two-legged and the final a single game played at Wembley). Below that, the same structure could be used with four groups of six, with the finalists taking two promotion slots. That would require two additional games, but even then a season could be comfortably completed within three months. If there’s a little more time, then the FA Cup can be played. All manner of adjustments are possible when there is an idea of time frames.
Without that, though, decisions simply seem arbitrary. Why void some leagues and not others? It may be, given the different spread of the disease, that different solutions have to be found in different countries, but within the same country, it makes no sense. The best solution now, other than resolving what happens for those whose contracts expire at the end of June, is surely to sit tight, wait and see what happens and then find the least disruptive solution for the time available.