As it’s the end of the year, it’s normal to reflect on how the year has gone. For most of us, this has been the year when Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down.
Here in the UK, football hasn’t been immune from the effects of Covid-19. In fact, it is still struggling with the effects the virus has had, with teams struggling to cope financially from both having to return of some of last season’s TV money and a lack of fans in the stadiums.
Clubs are also fighting a battle to keep away the even nastier new strain of the virus which is rampaging through the UK at the moment. The Premier League has seen two games called off this week alone after a raft of positive tests and is wondering what to do for the best once again.
Fans have once again been shut out of stadiums, only a few weeks after being allowed back in in limited numbers, with the UK's Covid tier system being changed yesterday meaning that Liverpool and Everton, who were the last two Premier League teams allowed to have fans, having to close their doors.
I think most of us can be proud of the part we’ve played in this pandemic. Even those of us who don’t work in healthcare, scientific research or one of the key industries that have helped keep things going, have managed to help just by making the changes to our lives that try to minimise the risk of making things worse for others.
I think football can be quite proud of the part it has played this year. It plays such an integral part in life here in the UK that it was inevitable that, after initially being seen as part of the problem, it would play some kind of part in the fight against the virus.
There’s been lots of good done by football during the pandemic. Firstly, after being called out by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock - in a bid to deflect from the British government’s total failure to prepare- Premier League footballers set up a fund where they donated part of their wages to raise money for the UK’s National Health Service.
Most players ended up taking wage cuts or wage deferrals in order to help their clubs out and to help preserve the jobs of non-playing staff with even Premier League clubs feeling the strain after being forced to pay back a chunk of the TV money.
Clubs themselves took on a big role within their communities, with a lot of them setting up schemes where they would reach out to those fans who were shielding at home by themselves to make them feel a little less isolated. Some clubs even got involved with delivering food to people.
On the other hand, perhaps somewhat inevitably, some clubs got things completely wrong.
In March and April, Five Premier League teams announced they would make use of a government scheme to cover up to 80% of wages of businesses that would be forced shut down following the order to stay at home.
It was only when the public found out that these clubs, who turn over hundreds of millions of pounds annually, were using the same public money earmarked to help out the small business that employs 5 people that Liverpool, Spurs and Bournemouth realised the folly of their actions and changed their minds. Newcastle and Norwich didn’t.
Arsenal topped that, by having their negotiations to cut player wages play out in public, which led to some players refusing to do so at all. Despite having cut player wages to save jobs, Arsenal made a lot of staff redundant, citing the need to save money, then followed that by almost immediately signing two players and improving the contract of another.
Clubs continue to get things wrong as the rules change. This week, Scottish side Queen of the South had to apologise, then apologise for the apology (never a sign things have gone well) after allowing politician George Galloway (some American readers may remember him being in front of a senate committee in 2005 after being accused of receiving illicit payments from the UN’s Oil for food program in Iraq) to attend a game with his family, despite Scotland being under lockdown measures at the time.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve felt a bit sorry for the players. This virus has served as a reminder that despite them seeming to be larger-than-life, players are only human. Some of them have caught the virus. Some of them have family at home that fall into the vulnerable category, meaning it would be especially bad if they were to catch the virus.
There was no opt-out option available like there was to NFL players. Footballers carry a value to their team that would be massively affected if they sat out a season. So players have had to carry on, regardless of whether they believe it is safe to do so or whether they were scared to do so.
A lot of them will have had their wages cut, which may not be the biggest deal when you’re at the top making mega-money, for but for those further down the leagues with mortgages to pay and families to feed, a cut in wages will have had a massive effect.
It was even worse for the women’s game in the UK. Most women’s teams in the UK are under the umbrella of a men’s team, so there was a constant worry that the women’s team could be a financial casualty. Also, in general, women’s teams depend a lot on sponsorship for revenue, so with companies tightening their belts, there has been less sponsorship available.
Some players got things completely wrong too. There were several players who were disciplined for breaching lockdown, some more than once. Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were kicked out of England duty after bringing back two women to their hotel room in Iceland. Jack Grealish managed to breach it less than 24 hours after recording a video for Aston Villa urging fans to stay at home.
The fact that football can be an effective instrument for change was perfectly personified by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford who led a campaign to make sure that kids from low-income families continued receive free school meals during school holidays, and was so successful he managed to make the government U-turn twice and as a result, kids were provided with meal vouchers over the summer break and now the Christmas break.
A lot of fans have done a lot of good too, really helping clubs out by buying merchandise, refusing to get refunds on season tickets and in some cases buying ‘virtual tickets’ for games they can’t attend.
German side Dynamo Dresden sold an incredible 72,000 virtual tickets for a game against Darmstadt this week. Five miles away from where I live, eighth-tier Marine FC were looking forward to hosting Spurs in the third-round of the FA Cup in front of their fans. Unfortunately, they can no longer host any fans so they are selling virtual tickets too.
The pandemic has also exposed the flaws football has in the way it is governed. When it came time to decide what should happen next in football there was a lot of self-interest at stake. West Ham vice-Chairman Karren Brady was very vocal about voiding the season, which would have ring less hollow had West Ham not been in massive danger of relegation at the time.
Similarly, when the government started to hand out relief money for sports affected by the shutdown, English football was left out because the government correctly said that the Premier League has enough money to help out.
Liverpool and Manchester United proposed ‘project Big Picture’, which offered quite generous financial terms to the Football League, but did so with some big strings attached, namely a reduction in the number of Premier League teams from 20 to 18 and a big change in the way the Premier League votes on matters, changing things from one club, one vote to one where the bigger clubs had a greater share in the power.
That was rejected, but it took months of negotiation before a financial package was put in place to help the Football League clubs that desperately needed it, and when it came it was far less lucrative than the one proposed under ‘Big Picture’.
Things were even worse in Scotland, where talks to end the season and work out what to do going forward ended up with some teams feeling completely screwed over, and it ended up with talk of legal action and a lot of bad feeling that hasn’t completely gone away.
If there’s some lessons that I would like to see football take forward from the pandemic, the first is that football once again became a welcome distraction from people’s worries rather than something that seemed to exist just to add to them.
Over the past few years football had almost become too big and too all-consuming with probably very few people genuinely enjoying the experience of being a football fan. But, how your team is doing on your pitch, or what others are saying about them off the pitch paled into insignificance when compared to the things people were grappling with this year. Hopefully people remember that.
The second is the importance of allowing people to see football for free. When it returned, the Premier League was on free-to-air TV in the UK for the first time in many years, at the behest of the government, and was on pretty much every night of the week. Football was seen as an important part in getting people to stay at home.
The last is that clubs, especially those at the top end of the Premier League who draw a lot of matchday fans from outside their area, have also realised that they can’t afford to take their fans for granted. A lot of clubs have really upped their game in the way they’ve engaged with fans and some have found some innovative solutions such as selling the rights to watch games online.
Sadly, it looks like our lives in 2021 are going to continue to be affected by the pandemic. But, just as there’s hope that the end is in sight with vaccines becoming available, there’s hope for football too.
Hope you all have a Happy New Year!