Sunday was supposed to be about Jose Mourinho’s reunion with Manchester United. April 4 is still scheduled to begin with a West Midlands derby between Aston Villa and Wolves. In reality, there will be no Premier or Football League games until April. In all probability, there will not be any at the start of the month.
The initial suspension of the fixture list was unprecedented but the authorities only bought themselves time. Further decisions await and there are no easy answers. For starters, the coronavirus is not predicted to peak in the United Kingdom until late May or June. The number of cases continues to rise, up 208 on Friday to 798.
An impasse could extend to the point of permanence. The English FA chairman Greg Clarke reportedly said he does not expect the domestic season to be completed. Villa CEO Christian Purslow said he had “no idea” if the Premier League campaign could be concluded.
Certainly, it cannot finish in its current format and probably not within the designed timescale. The British government banned mass gatherings for the foreseeable future on Friday. As long as that remains the case, games could only be played behind closed doors.
Managers including Pep Guardiola and Chris Wilder believe it is imperative fans are there. “There is no reason to play without the people,” said the Manchester City manager earlier this week. But that was before it became legally impossible for crowds to gather.
Similarly, Manchester United and Wolves played Europa League games abroad on Thursday without crowds. The lack of atmosphere prompted some hysterical complaints that it wasn’t football. Subsequent events should put that into perspective.
By and large, the Premier League could afford to play without fans. “Premier League clubs would broadly be okay,” said football finance expert Dr Rob Wilson of Sheffield Hallam University. “Broadcast revenue outweighs matchday revenue; about 25 per cent of a Premier League club’s revenue is matchday revenue.”
But if the season is not completed, it has huge implications for that broadcast revenue. The Premier League’s television deal is worth about £3 billion (Dh13.5bn) a year. Broadcasters pay for certain amounts of games. It is not yet clear if they would be entitled to hundreds of millions of pounds of refunds if the season is unfinished and if that would have to come from the clubs.
There are other sizeable numbers. All Premier League clubs received at least £96 million in broadcast revenue last season. Relegation costs and while it would be simple and right to anoint Liverpool, 25 points clear, as champions if no more games are played, it is more complicated at the bottom.
Villa are in the drop zone but with a game in hand on their immediate rivals. One possible scenario would be to temporarily expand the division to 22, include the Championship’s runaway top two, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion; but that would be unfair to the play-off pack. And how to decide League One, where only one point separates second from eighth? One way or another, it is easy to imagine legal action following.
Wilson thinks the best-case scenario is a campaign that ends belatedly, perhaps with next season beginning in September. “I could see a six-10 week recess and then finish the season and then have a couple of weeks off and restart,” he said.
Yet it should not be forgotten that the catalyst for postponements came when Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi contracted coronavirus, while other players self-isolated after showing symptoms.
So can football isolate itself from society to such an extent that its players are protected, or will games just proceed without those who show symptoms, running the risk of some footballers infecting others?