Let’s not exaggerate, the threat to Premier League isn’t that serious

Chance to tackle the wider game’s obscene inequality unlikey to be seen as a priority

Another week, another Zoom.

On the morning after the 2019-20 Premier League was supposed to finish, its 20 clubs will once again gather in their virtual conference room to decide how it will actually finish.

There, emboldened by the successful resumption of the Bundesliga over the weekend, they will vote on the league’s protocols for returning to training, before debating how they will play the season’s 92 remaining fixtures, and what should happen if they cannot.

If the first part should be simple enough – the clubs are overwhelmingly expected to vote through the new medical protocols, allowing players to return to formal training by Tuesday morning – then what follows promises to be a good deal more contentious.


A potential restart date will be mooted, with June 19th seeming to be the frontrunner at present. At which point, the same people who brought us the VAR armpit debacle will try to convince us, with an entirely straight face, that they can run an impenetrable bio-secure league in the midst of a global pandemic.

Along the way, we will hear plenty of noise about the importance of the Premier League to the health of the sport as a whole, perhaps even the health of Britain as a whole.

"Morale" is one of those words that has been promiscuously coughed around of late: the idea that as during the two World Wars, a grieving and fearful nation can be partially cheered by the sight of its favourite sport. The restoration of familiar rituals. The reassuring drawl of Danny Murphy: "For me, Gary, anywhere else on the pitch that's a straight red."

All of which, allied to the government’s sequential easing of lockdown, would appear to be an argument for resuming all levels of football when it is safe to do so, abetted by generous subsidies for clubs lower down the pyramid to ease the financial burden.

But we are a demanding bunch these days, it seems. Only the very best and most lucrative football will sufficiently raise our spirits! So while League Two clubs vote to end the season, while the lower levels of the pyramid saw their seasons voided at a stroke, the biggest clubs continue to accelerate towards restart, utterly convinced of their own insuperable necessity.

There is another important point to be made here. The threat to top-level football – a terrifying spectre of Premier League giants toppling by the dozen – has been wildly exaggerated, largely by those with a clear interest in resuming the season as soon as possible.

The majority of Premier League clubs have billionaire owners with access to plentiful lines of credit. Grassroots organisations, lower-league clubs, virtually the entire women’s game: this is where the real threat lies, and it is both disingenuous and deeply offensive for the very biggest clubs to paint their own plight in similar terms.

Ideological choice

For in order to survive, the Premier League doesn’t need to prosper. It simply needs to suffer less than its rivals: Ligue 1, or the Eredivisie, or the Championship, whose ailing corpses can then be picked apart like carrion. Cash-rich clubs with deep pockets will simply be able to harvest a devastated market for bargains. The pie as a whole may be smaller, but it will be divided even more grotesquely in favour of the richest.

It’s like the old joke about two hikers being chased through the woods by a ravenous bear.

“This is hopeless,” pants one of them desperately. “There’s no way either of us can outrun a bear.”

“I don’t need to outrun a bear,” his companion points out. “I only need to outrun you.”

Often you will hear it said that the prosperity of the Premier League is vital to the game as a whole. This is the sort of faddish pseudo-economics that was debunked in wider society some generations ago, and yet remains curiously persistent in football, which continues to operate by the maxim that what’s good for the top is good for everyone.

According to its most recent accounts the Premier League is sitting on cash reserves of £1.5bn: enough money to guarantee the entire pyramid several times over if it so chose. If smaller clubs end up going to the wall during this crisis, remember: their fate will have been a conscious, ideological choice.

There are faint signs that the wider game is beginning to wake up to this reality; that the pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity to reform the game’s obscene inequality, or to fortify it.

The British government’s insistence that any Premier League resumption incorporate some element of free-to-air broadcast, and significant investment in the lower levels of the pyramid, feels like an acknowledgement of this. But without a game-wide consensus, any unilateral move to restart the season feels like a case of turning the money back on first, and asking questions later.

And there are plenty of questions that need to be asked. What of the players, many of whom harbour grave doubts about a restart? What of their families? What of BAME athletes and staff, who the data suggest are more susceptible to Covid-19?

What of the stadium security guard who hasn't earned a penny since March but lives with his elderly grandmother, and is thus faced with a despicable dilemma? What of the NHS workers still struggling to source PPE or get adequately tested, who are now watching Premier League clubs hungrily buying up equipment and augmenting their own testing programmes?

The problem is, none of them get a vote on Monday.

– Guardian