Why I’m backing the Premier League’s Project Restart
I write, of course, amid the greatest tragedy to unfold in my lifetime. When Crystal Palace last played football, squeezing past Watford 1-0 on March 7, it was impossible to predict how words like “pandemic” and “coronavirus” would become so familiar to us all, and the terrible loss and sadness so many families would experience, in so short a time.
With little else in the news except the human and economic damage wrought by this disease, it can feel wrong even to contemplate taking steps back towards normality. But perhaps we should allow ourselves to do that. We in football accept it is an obsession that always seems to get inserted into public debate and that we are held to a higher account than other sectors, yet there are limits. Caring about the terrible situation around us and caring about our clubs and industry are not mutually exclusive.
I hope Crystal Palace, during this crisis, have acted in a way that acknowledges the important role we have in the community and I would stress that, first and foremost, football has an absolute duty to society. No sacrifice our game is making can come close to those being made by people on the front line. If we can do anything to help the NHS reduce fatalities or even make one person’s life easier, then it is of course the No 1 priority. But after that, I also have a duty to my club, staff and the wider sport. It helps no one if we — or any other industry — come out the other side in a worse state than we otherwise could have.
Hence Project Restart. Of course, there are many barriers. We know we cannot have spectators at matches. Given we cannot leave our houses at the moment, we know things out of our control must change before the Premier League can consider finishing 2019-20 or starting next season on time.
What’s more, if the nation decides that the gravity of events dictates that it’s simply not appropriate to play, then we must and will respect that. Of all the objections raised this is the only one that seems, to me, potentially insurmountable and I would respond to it with the following observations.
First, we will not walk from this nightmare in one quick step to a bright future, the disease over, the world on the same track that it was before. Barring a miracle or a vaccine, the next months are likely to involve a game of cat and mouse with Covid-19, with restrictions ebbing and flowing. Every facet of normal behaviour is going to crawl slowly from the wreckage — we may have to develop a completely new normal for work and social places.
I believe that just as Formula One is often the precursor to developments that become standard in general road vehicles, so Premier League football with its physical science, medical infrastructures and resources for looking after its people, can begin to define how the “new normal” might look for a lot of working environments.
Not only that, in our country and beyond, people need to find ways to move forward mentally, to experience some small relief from the worries of this crisis. In my view a story here and a conversation there about the game last night will not trivialise loss or suffering but offer a tiny respite from it for many people. Football is meaningless — but it is magnificently meaningless. It has the power to lighten lives; why not see if we can use that power again?
Let’s be clear: there are a list of things we cannot and will not do. We cannot occupy any paramedic or ambulance that the NHS needs. We must do our best not to create a public-order issue with supporters attempting to get close to grounds. Perhaps most importantly, we cannot take testing capacity from one person in greater need.
The issue of player and staff welfare has to be treated with the utmost seriousness. We must bring the players with us, we must listen to them, we must put the health of them and their families front and centre whenever we play again. It should be not just about rendering it safe for them but also making sure they feel safe.
But I’ve seen all the proposals for training and travel and while there are challenges, those proposals offer a level of protection to players, staff and officials that I believe will render Premier League football one of the safest places in society to co-exist, much safer than a journey to the supermarket at present.
Playing represents the greatest challenge, of course, because physical contact presents a risk of cross-infection but protocols are being worked on for that. At their centre is reducing to almost zero the chance of any player participating who is carrying the virus. It’s no more or less than every workplace will have to wrestle with until there is a vaccine.
Isn’t it all just about the money? Well, not entirely. I want to complete the competition for reasons of sporting integrity. I want to crown Liverpool champions and give every other club a fair crack at the best league position they can achieve. I certainly don’t want to have difficult conversations about curtailing, voiding and points per game. The ramifications of each are complex and could involve legal challenges that run on for months, if not years.
But, yes, it is partly about the money. And we should all care about the money. I’ll tell you why. Nobody wins if the Premier League receives less money. Nobody. We are already facing losses no one can quantify — and if we don’t finish the season we are entering uncharted waters.
Football is one of the most efficient tax-generating industries in Britain: we pay the players a lot but 50 per cent goes straight back into the public purse. Overall we pay about £3.3 billion in tax every year and it is the Premier League that largely funds the whole football pyramid.
It pays about £400 million per year to the English Football League (EFL) in parachute and solidarity payments — almost five times the EFL’s TV deal. It pays £25 million annually towards the National League and grassroots. The Premier League in itself does not make profit or retain cash — it is merely a mechanism for distributing income to its 20 clubs and throughout the game.
Suppliers, contractors and services in our communities depend on us and the money we spend on capital projects — Palace and Leicester City are building academy facilities costing tens of millions. Premier League clubs owe approximately £1.6 billion in transfer payments to other clubs, by far the most of any league.
So, this is about football’s whole ecosystem and the exchequer, and the many secondary industries football enriches. While Palace went into this in good shape financially, no business is immune to the realities of profit or loss and cash flow. Some Premier League clubs are already warning they face crisis if they cannot get back to playing, and in the EFL many more may face extinction.
Finally, and this is key, if we cannot play out the end of this season, why can we necessarily start the next one in August or September? Are we convinced things will look so much different from how they do today? Many of the same issues regarding player welfare, venues and closed-doors matches will exist then. The more we can work out now, the better chance we have of coming out of this with the game we all love in position to recover over time.
I think Javier Tebas, the La Liga president, had it right when justifying steps to try to restart in Spain. He said: “I do not understand why there would be more danger in playing football behind closed doors, with all precautionary measures, than working on an assembly line, being on a fishing boat on the high seas.”
Football is just another industry trying to get back to work. It doesn’t have any more right to do so than construction or retail but nor does it have any less. Neutral grounds, dressing-room distancing, no fans: however we do it, and whenever we do it, football cannot return the same. So let’s at least contemplate whether it’s possible. As Tebas observed: “If important economic sectors cannot restart, in a safe and controlled manner, they could end up disappearing. That could happen to professional football.”