Football’s Self-Interest Beats Its Health Interest

by | Jun 16, 2020

Any pretence that players’ health was any driver for professional football’s return lies in tatters. The big-money European leagues have cranked into big-money-making gear. But the small-money leagues have given up on season 2019/20.

England’s Premier League (EPL) starts this week because England’s football broadcasters have said “fcuk safety, pay me,” like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. And just as coronavirus has exposed societal inequalities, so it is with England’s Football League (EFL); its biggest-money event, the Championship, restarts next Saturday while its second and third-tier clubs voted “nah, fcuk that” (I’m paraphrasing), apart from the money-spinning play-offs. Meanwhile players continue to catch the virus.

The timeline of league suspensions was demonstrably money-driven. All seasons below the National League ended on 26th March. The National League stopped on 22nd April. League Two said “enough” on 15th May, League One likewise last week. And Scotland’s Professional League (SPFL) has only just finished with the consequences of its decision to curtail 2019/20. Debates over SPFL reconstruction rumbled on, because certain clubs were ready to increase an already-bloated Scottish professional set-up, when money is at its most premium in that set-up, just to avoid relegation.

On 9th June, Leagues One and Two voted by what the EFL called “overwhelming majorities” to finish on the same points-per-game (PPG) basis as Scotland. League Two clubs had called for this since mid-May while League One clubs had a mass debate about various proposals before very eventually deciding to follow suit. This, by unfortunate co-incidence, gave reasons for complaint to some ‘characters’ with not-necessarily shared fondness for their own voices.

Peterborough United’s director of football, Barry Fry, was exercised by the Posh’s exit from the play-off place they occupied when League One was suspended. In-form Peterborough were, he insisted, “cheated for the chance of promotion…(the EFL) took nothing into consideration. It’s been a disgrace…from day one.” And owner Darragh McAnthony said, BEFORE the vote, that “it’s about vengeance. We have to right this wrong.”

“This wrong” was Wycombe Wanderers leaping from eighth-place to third (from two places off the play-offs to home advantage IN them), thanks to their game in hand and PPG average. Chairboys chairman Rob Couhig had the temerity to feel “disappointment” that they couldn’t “contend for automatic promotion.” But he thought “the league did the right thing by all the teams” in terms of “safety factors,” “financial implications” and good old “sporting integrity.” Because of course he did.

Predictably, relegated clubs were vocal opponents of the decisions. Particularly pained were Tranmere Rovers who, many fans noted, were “the form team in the division, having won their last three games.” They finished three points behind Wimbledon with a game in hand but an inferior PPG, as Wimbledon close-shaved relegation for the second season in-a-row.

Tranmere’s supporters’ groups accused the EFL of “shirking the responsibility of finding a solution befitting of sporting integrity.” And chairman, and ex-FA CEO, Mark Palios told the Mirror newspaper that Rovers were considering a “number of options,” including “going down the legal route,” although beyond general reference to “this unjust decision,” he didn’t specify Rovers’ case.

Meanwhile, one fan noted that they were “relegated (removed) from League One by “clubs looking out for themselves (we see you).” Another remembered that Tranmere were denied promotion in 1990 when Swindon Town successfully appealed their two-division demotion for illegal payments to players. That Swindon leapfrogged leaders Crewe Alexandra to be declared League Two champions on PPG cannot have improved Merseyside moods.

And another tweeted the EFL rules’ long-sentence award-winner, which declared as “most important” the “need to maintain the integrity of the League competition and its credibility among its stakeholders, in particular its fans, by ensuring to the greatest extent possible that, in accordance with their expectations, the outcome of the competition is determined by sporting merit, and not by factors unrelated to sporting merit.” However, the clubs’ decision to end the season could also be backed by this sentence.

Palios had punted an alternative, with PPG weighted by “the statistical average actual margin for error” of PPG in “the last three years.” There would be “no relegations, or relegations only of clubs who would be relegated even after the margin of error has been applied.” Translation: Not Tranmere. But they were voted down by the 71 EFL clubs.

Southend United chairman Ron Martin’s campaign to make Blues’ new Fossetts Farm stadium one of the biggest in non-league football continues. Martin insisted that he couldn’t “reasonably argue against” the vote, mainly because Blues’ PPG average was “you’re joking!” But seasoned Martin watchers knew that lack of “reason” wouldn’t stop him. And he claimed that his preferred option, voiding the season had “as much merit” as “curtailing” it. Which isn’t only true when you are 16 points from safety with 11 games left…oh no.

Relegation from League Two remains undecided, due to “on-going disciplinary matters.” On-and-on-and-on-going, of course, as these “matters” are Macclesfield Town’s non-payment of players, which has again landed them in the EFL’s dock, on 19th June. Under PPG, Stevenage would return to the Non-League Paper (out every Sunday, £1.50). And chair Phil Wallace refreshingly admitted that “we got ourselves into this. Nobody threw us at the bottom.” But he wasn’t expecting to finish bottom, telling the BBC: “(Macclesfield) have a charge to answer. That’s the sixth time this season. So I assume there will be a points deduction.”

It’s a fair assumption. Macc have already lost 11 points this season, to owner Amar Alkadhi’s allergy to timeous salary payments. Their array of points-deductions, reductions and deduction suspensions speaks volumes about Alkadhi’s financial misdeeds. But defender David Fitzpatrick called it “unfair” to calculate Macc’s PPG average after deducting all 11 points, as it did “not reflect properly” on “previous sanctions.” And he’s right. Eleven points from a potential 111 in Macc’s 37-game season is a bigger penalty than 11 points from 138 in a full season.

Macc expressed “deep surprise,” as the charges related to March and “the Arbitration Panel at our last hearing” said that not even their “tardiness (yet again)” in paying salaries “necessarily requires a further charge” and they “would require strong persuasion to impose a further points deduction for any such breach.” Thus, Macc would “understandably be appealing vehemently.”

But Macc were also charged with “failing to act with utmost good faith” towards the EFL “and breaching an order, requirement, direction or instruction of the league,” which is not the above-mentioned “such a breach.” And EFL status rests on whether that lack of “utmost good faith” merits a three-or-more points deduction.

The (blameless) players are not even trying to hide their bitterness. “We feel the EFL are trying their best to throw Macclesfield out of the league,” a 9th June statement said, emotion perhaps dominating reason. But throughout the season, they have shown admirable solidarity with club staff. Fitzpatrick said: “Any shortcomings this season have been…out of the players’ control, and with the current publicity and charges against the club, players’ careers are at stake and non-playing staff jobs and livelihoods are also on the line.”

And a players/staff joint statement on Thursday pulled no punches “Our mental health has been disregarded at every turn and this has manifested itself in the fact that many of our players and staff have had…tangible and often debilitating symptoms of mental illness.” As for blame, Alkadhi and the EFL got theirs: “The triggering of our mental wellbeing struggles has been down to the way we have been treated by the club.” And the allegation of “seemingly doing everything to remove us from the league” resurfaced, a jarring note without specific evidence, but understandable.

Hearts, the highest-profile club relegated “by” the SPFL season’s curtailment, led the varyingly crackpot efforts to reconstruct the entire league just to avoid that relegation. Owner Ann Budge fronted these efforts, which itself hardly enhanced their credibility, never mind her claim that her first proposal, a 14-14-14 divisional divide and a weird top-tier split after 26 games (for two seasons), was somehow “a better way for Scottish football to deal with the current emergency.”

Budge also suggested a possible 14-14-16 structure, incorporating Highland and Lowland League champions Brora Rangers and Kielty Hearts (no relation). But neither proposal was ever likely to get the required overwhelming support from clubs in all current divisions. Stenhousemuir chair Ian McMenemy, for one, wasn’t fooled: “It does seem to be revolving around Premiership clubs being asked to save Hearts for this season.”

Rangers submitted an “innovation paper” whose innovation seemed to be to move the SPFL towards one team-per-Scottish-household. A 14-14-18 split with Rangers and Celtic “B” teams in the 18 and their progress capped at the second-tier, while other Premiership “B” teams were graciously allowed to apply for the Highland and Lowland leagues, a perhaps unwise enshrinement of Rangers and Celtic as Scotland’s top two, given Rangers’ current financial woes. This proposal had genuine wealth redistribution merit, though it smelt of Rangers trying to show that they had NO financial woes.

And, being Rangers’ idea, favourable opinion was desperately sought by Scotland’s football media, via knee-jerk reaction. Hence BBC Scotland’s headline: “B teams idea may improve Scotland team, says Steven Craigan,” after the ex-Motherwell youth coach said: “Why not try something different? Over the last few years Scotland haven’t produced enough good players so what has previously gone on hasn’t worked.” How playing bottom-tier football would produce international footballers wasn’t addressed.

Rangers’ proposal wasn’t popular enough to even justify a vote. But with 1st August the target date for the new season’s start, SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster’s preferred option (stop me if you’ve heard this before) became the only option, a 14-10-10-10 split which would stop Hearts, Partick Thistle and Stranraer’s relegation and promote Inverness Caledonian Thistle; ahem, “co-incidentally” the loudest-mouthed opponents, bar Rangers, of the season’s curtailment.

Doncaster claimed that 14-10-10-10 had “sufficient support” to justify an “indicative, non-binding” poll of all 42 current SPFL clubs. And (stop me if you’ve heard THIS before) he asked clubs to respond by 10am on Monday, with the proposal going to a formal vote if this poll confirmed Doncaster’s claims although the numerical definition of “sufficient” remained Doncaster’s secret. But not even Doncaster in his Machiavellian 2020 guise could call 16 clubs, half the number required to formally pass 14-10-10-10, “sufficient.”

Budge and Hearts accepted the decision with the good grace which has defined their close season…by emptily threatening legal action. In a statement too far up its own arse to read without your eyes watering, they condemned “Scottish Football” for not standing “together in an emergency,” leaving them “no choice but to begin a legal challenge.” As they claimed it was “an active legal matter,” they wouldn’t comment further. Not even to hint at what on God’s earth their case is, such as what SPFL rules were broken. “It’s no’ fair” won’t cut it in court.

And, as if their pomposity wasn’t already alienating, they went all Rangers with their claim to “have acted at all times with integrity, common sense and with the best interests of Scottish football at heart,” while still not explaining how their proposals served Scottish football’s interests beyond Hearts’ interests. “Many weeks have been wasted,” were among the truest words in Hearts’ statement. So hopefully their “mounting” of a legal challenge will simply be their lawyers suggesting they “get tae fcuk.”

Despite Hearts’ fcukwittery, the idea that no club should suffer as a direct result of a curtailed season remains a good one. But it is depressing that health has been a bit-part player in all the above discussions. Port Vale chair Carol Shanahan voted to end proceedings “for the greater good,” because “it was the right thing to do,” despite the Valiants being one place and one point off the League Two play-offs. It is depressing that such an attitude grabbed headlines.

Financial self-interest has won. At elite levels, broadcast millions have spoken louder than dead tens-of-thousands. And dismally few in football seem shamed by or ashamed of that.