T was a meeting and a statement which football fans have been waiting anxiously for but, despite its welcome conclusion, nobody should be pencilling April 30 into their diary.
The good news coming out of the Premier League’s virtual conference was the level of agreement between clubs when it came to the need to complete the 2019-20 season and the need to be flexible about how long that could take.
That’s a major relief for Liverpool fans looking forward to their first title in 30 years, to clubs hoping to qualify for Europe or avoid relegation, and to supporters hoping their team can win promotion from the Championship.
But the decision to ‘name a date’ and extend football’s mass postponement until the end of next month seems an almost pointless exercise.
One look at the current situation in the UK tells you the chances of Boris Johnson sanctioning a return to action within five or six weeks are slimmer than the odds on Liverpool winning the trophy if the season is completed.
When you consider it took China between three and four months to reach a point where they were reporting no new domestic cases of coronavirus (and even then they haven’t relaxed rules around mass gatherings) it doesn’t take a scientific expert to work out that we won’t be playing football in Europe in April.
The likelihood is the Premier League will meet again in three or four weeks to extend the shut down until the end of May, or even June; and that is a far more realistic date to aim for. With that in mind, the FA’s agreement that the season can be “extended indefinitely” is the more important aspect of the announcement. Those two words are the ray of hope that shines far brighter than the star placed over April 30.
Under the FA’s current rules, the season had to completed by June 1 unless it acted. Similarly, Uefa, even after its most recent meeting, had planned for the campaign to be completed by June 30 — the date when players’ contracts normally expire.
Now there is real hope that if the season has to continue into July, that it can do. Fifa, for instance, has already established a working group to look at issues around player contracts, with the aim to reach agreement for players to continue playing for their clubs beyond the expiry date.
The negotiations required to achieve that goal should not be underestimated but it appears there is co-operative atmosphere in football in these difficult times which could make it possible.
French federation president Noel Le Graet says the Ligue 1 season should not end before July 15 so that all competitions in Europe can be completed.
“Frankly, I can’t see how we could end it at the end of June,” Le Graet told French newspaper L’Equipe. “The proposal that the French Federation wants to make to everyone and to Uefa is that we must absolutely play at least until July 15. There is no other solution.”
Those quotes are an indication that it isn’t only the Premier League planning to extend this season long into summer, and that’s important because no one league can operate alone in the football calendar. It has to be a European-wide solution.
What football cannot control at any time, however, is the virus — how virulent it becomes, how fast it can be contained or how willing governments will be to return to a rapid ‘normality’ once it has started to wane. So, setting dates and planning the future with any kind of certainty is probably a thankless task. China may have succeeded in stemming the virus this week, but that hasn’t meant the end of the crisis. The Chinese government is now facing a new batch of cases amongst Chinese nationals who have returned to the country from abroad. When you consider the UK has 1m residents currently unable to return home, and many more expats with British passports, then you can imagine it’s a scenario which may be repeated.
There is also the fear that many football clubs may not be around by the time we eventually get back onto the field. The Premier League clubs know they are safe, but we have already seen Barnet in the EFL in serious trouble, while Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland have implemented temporary layoffs for all staff this week.
That situation makes finishing the season and playing the remaining games in front of full crowds, an imperative.
West Ham vice chair Karren Brady’s suggestion the season should be declared ‘null and void’ looks a lot further away from being considered than a week ago as a result; and the prospect of playing games behind closed doors is also off the table. Government officials have reminded clubs that the reason games are banned is not because of the threat of the virus being spread inside stadia, but because of the pressure that hosting a game places on emergency services. Given that ambulances will need to be on hand at games even if there are no fans, the idea remains a no-go.
So, the honest truth is that all we can do now is sit back, wait, and hope. Football is doing everything it can to return to normal but nobody, no matter what they tell you, can put a date on it.