For all the increasingly tetchy statements and warnings of the impact of the pandemic on clubs and their communities, many outsiders could be forgiven for looking at English football’s top flight and assuming business was pretty much back to normal. Spending in the current transfer window may well surpass that of 12 months ago. Chelsea have splashed out more than £200million on new players while, closer to home, Villa and Wolves have both broken their transfer records.
The full picture across the whole division is a little more complex. Despite some notable big money deals, for those clubs without wealthy owners the market has been considerably more tricky. Regardless of size, the pandemic is going to leave a mark on every club’s balance sheet.
Yet when you have always been happy to trade off being the richest league in the world and when the majority of your £9.2billion TV deal remains intact, it should really be no surprise if people expect you to look after both yourself and others in times of hardship.
It is far easier to have sympathy with those clubs for whom the current situation really is a matter of life and death and men like AFC Telford United chairman Andy Pryce, who for six months has worked round the clock to guide the Bucks through a colossal storm, only to find the most dangerous waters still lie ahead.
For Telford and Kidderminster Harriers, their regional compatriots at the very foot of the professional game, the news supporters are now unlikely to return for another six months is a hammer blow delivered at the cruellest time, less than a fortnight before the October date which for so long had been a beacon of hope.
“You think there is light at the end of the tunnel and then it is gone,” Harriers chief executive, Neil Male, admitted earlier this week.
Neither Harriers or Telford have been helped by the government’s bizarre decision to class National League North, the division in which they both play, as ‘elite’ level sport.
That means they must follow the same guidelines as Premier League neighbours Albion and Wolves, with supporters barred, while a step below in the non-league pyramid Stourbridge, who are classed as playing at a ‘recreational’ level, can admit 600 fans to home matches.
It is almost seven months since Harriers or Telford played a competitive fixture and having exhausted almost every avenue in their efforts to stave off a financial crisis, they are more than deserving of government support. Thankfully, indications from Westminster are that they will receive some.
Male was a professional with Torquay United before his career was cut short by injury, going on to enjoy success in the security industry before returning to the sport a year ago with Harriers. His pervading mood over recent months has been one of frustration.
“I feel like I am saying the same things now as I was in March,” he says. “There has been next to nothing in terms of support from the FA, Premier League or the government. The last 12 months have been a real eye-opener in terms of how the sport is run.”
Haven’t they just? Male is far from the only one who could be forgiven for feeling they are sounding like a broken record.
Back in April, Tranmere chairman Mark Palios, warned the EFL was facing arguably the most important week in its history.
This week, more than five months on and with no long-term solution to the crisis having yet emerged, he was back on the radio speaking in similar terms.
The general approach of the football’s governing bodies since March – and that of many other sports – can be equated to kicking a can down a road, in the hope temporary measures might see them through the worst.
Parachute and solidarity payments were advanced, while the government furlough scheme helped ease the burden for many clubs in Leagues One and Two.
This week’s developments have been the equivalent of hitting a brick wall. There are no more short-term fixes available, no more sticking plasters. Surely the Premier League cannot be surprised the EFL and the government are now toward it and asking ‘what now?’
It is surely in the league’s best interests to act. After all, the top flight is packed full of players developed by clubs further down the divisions and who might have been lost to the sport entirely were it not for the pyramid.
If the Premier League claims it cannot assist, an obvious question would be to ask what has happened to the cash reserves of £1.5billion listed in its most recent accounts?
That is not to say it might not have some legitimate questions about where some of the £200m the EFL claims it requires might be going?
There is no doubt that at some clubs, particularly in the Championship, the pandemic has exacerbated problems which already existed due to poor financial management. Some might not survive even with a bailout. But that is not the case for all, far from it, and it would be ludicrous for those clubs who are simply victims of an unprecedented crisis to go out of business because of the mistakes of others.
At some point there does need to be a wider discussion on how the sport handles money, from its distribution to its spending. We might also be nearing the time when an honest debate is required over the sustainability of the game in its current structure.
For now, it can wait. There has been enough talking. It is time for action.
* There can be few who missed the irony of the Premier League suddenly stressing the importance of match-going supporters.
“Football is not the same without attending fans and the football economy is unsustainable without them,” the league said in a statement, shortly after the Prime Minister announced fans may not be back for another six months.
Guess these would be the same match-attending supporters the Premier League has consistently messed around for the past 28 years with constantly-changing kick-off times and ever-rising ticket prices?
Those fans now find themselves shut out for an extended period, with many no doubt wondering how to feel about a new season which, for the most part, they will unable to witness in person.
Just how many will return when the green light is given for the turnstiles is another impossible question to answer in these most uncertain of times.