English football's power brokers are failing the pub test.
In Australia public figures live or die by trying to pass what is known as the pub test. On Friday nights tap rooms are filled with conversation of the week's hot topic.
Our drinking holes might be off licences at the moment, but it hasn’t sheltered Premier League footballers from public debate. Last week the finger was pointed at the game by UK government health secretary Matt Hancock.
Meanwhile Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have furloughed their non-playing staff, and more clubs are set to follow.
Coronovirus has stopped the world from spinning on its axis for the time being and football hasn't been ring fenced from that pandemonium the pandemic has created.
If a week is a long time in football, it feels even longer in this semi-dystopian world we find ourselves in. The aforementioned power houses of the game weren’t the first outfits to head down the furlough path; Forest Green and Barnet made the call a few weeks backm but their financial position is far frailer.
Top flight football has been exposed in the last few weeks as being financially weaker than we perceive given the sums of money that move around the upper echelons of the game. Liverpool, for example, paid over £40m in agent fees last year, yet have leant on government support less than a month since they last kicked a ball.
The narrative about the impact COVID-19 is having on football is broad. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has donated a million euros to the cause. Lionel Messi has been the voice of the Barcelona squad and staff, as some of the game's highest paid stars are set to forgo 70% of their salaries to protect the income of their non-playing colleagues.
Karren Brady, a West Ham board member, is calling for the season to be scrapped, whilst the Leagues argue the integrity of the game is at stake if the campaigns aren't completed.
The peculiar place football has in our culture has cast a light on how at odds the lives of fans and players are. Three months ago elite footballers, like many of us, were taking in their salary that is their norm (even if it isn’t ours) and would live within those means.
Life is different at the moment - and by different we mean hard, uncertain and anxiety inducing. Many of us have never imagined a life on the streets. In the panic of what faces us it is natural to protect what we have along with our families.
Has football been too slow to act though? It’s been somewhat of a PR disaster and the PFA appear as behind the eight ball as the government themselves. For weeks the PFA have been at the negotiating table to work on a deferral of players wages.
At the time of writing the UK has the tenth highest number of cases. Of the top ten the UK has the third highest mortality rate and fifth highest number of deaths. It’s 30 days since the 100th COVID-19 casein the UK and the curve is ascending quicker than Liverpool were towards their first title in thirty years.
As the cabinet grapples with their biggest game in years the finger is being pointed at football. Hancock, in last week’s press conference, said Premier League footballers had to carry some of the burden. The comments are likely to bring a strain on the relationship between game and government that we haven’t witnessed since Thatcher’s assault on working class fans in the eighties.
City and United have joined forces to make a notable donation to local food banks. Marcus Rashford alone lead a charge to raise £100,000. Wilfred Zaha has given some of his properties over to the NHS. Jordan Henderson and other senior Liverpool players were assembling their own war cabinet to support the cause. Players want to help.
This parish was established to question the business which football has become. To celebrate the clusters of the game that operate in and for their communities and minorities. Concourse separates the juxtaposition of emotions football gives us. Enjoyment and disillusionment towards what it has become. It’s an unsolvable predicament, but underneath those feelings lives the hope that when football was needed, those with the power would put integrity first and the needs of the thousands of linchpins the game is built on.
In business, cash is king. For the Premier League, that cash is drying up faster than a Jose Mourhino dash to the fourth official. When the recovery begins communities will need the small businesses that give it’s inhabitants jobs. It will be the glue that sticks us back together again. Football will have its role to play, but the world won’t end if there is no Newcastle, Spurs of Liverpool, as unfortunate as that may be.
Mike Ashley is worth almost two billion quid. Daniel Levy is the highest paid exec in the league but will his salary will be maintained as it stands. Liverpool have made combined pre-tax profits of over £150m in the last two financial years. When Jamie Carragher is calling out the club he spent 17 years at, captained and appeared over 500 times for, something isn’t right.
We’re all missing football right now, and the lack of it brings more problems than the absence of entertainment. Football gives us something to look forward to, something to be passionate about and to a certain extent positive distraction. In the grand scheme of things, it is superfluous though. Without match day at the weekend mental health issues, loneliness and domestic violence are set to rise.
The Premier League have donated £20m to the NHS but damage caused by the PFA's misguided action and the decisions of Spurs et al hasn't been reversed. The PFA has called on the Premier League to up their donation, claiming a reduction in players salaries will reduce tax contributions.
The PFA are missing the point. If their priority is the protection of the NHS they could lobby their members to help support staff after tax deductions? Others still in employment aren't being asked the same, so why are footballers the exception? Or, have the players take temporary cuts - the non playing staff would still be subject to Her Majesties Revenue and Customs.
These problems aren't football’s to fix, but the game does have the resources to help and the infighting amongst the clubs, PFA and Premier League isn’t achieving much. Fans have long accepted they are consumers in an entertainment business and made peace with it so as to enjoy past time of their dads and mates. Football fans don't really care for the opinions of government ministers, certainly not one who doesn't grasp basic maths, but theme's power brokers will become the subject of the pub test and if they don't respond the right way we'll finally know one thing for sure. The game’s gone.