As the schools close and the nation prepares for lockdown, it almost seems irrelevant to be talking about football; but what else are you going to do when the country is grinding to a halt?
The temporary shut down until 4 April looks more than likely to be extended given that a peak to the virus is still on the horizon and Italy are still reporting new cases despite imposing a lockdown of their own. All this of course begs the question about what happens next for SAFC’s season. This is by no means a simple issue with myriad complications.
Starting with the presumption that football begins again from 4 April, Sunderland players will have had the best part of a month without a match. Before we talk about the financial implications of that shutdown, we should consider the practicalities. According to David Wheeler in The Guardian some clubs have closed their doors entirely which means that players are having to take training into their own hands; how seriously they take that duty will vary from player to player but even for those taking it seriously, their match fitness will not be there.
After a season break clubs go through pre-season in order to protect players from injuries as the higher intensity of playing football begins at the start of the season. So this break will almost certainly require some form of match fitness period before it gets going again. The administration involved in setting up "pre-seasons" would, I assume, not be straightforward and you can probably expect at least another two weeks after 4 April before the leagues look to catch up on missed games. All of this means that the season will run for around 6-7 weeks longer than the intended end date of 3 May (for Sunderland). So, in the best-case scenario we are looking at a mid-June finish to the season.
The financial repercussions are huge for all clubs without the riches of the Premier League. You could argue that in the shutdown we have been "fortunate" in that we would not have had a home fixture anyway; however, that ignores the loss to conferencing and events at the stadium. The fact less people are venturing out has also probably meant that the club shop is doing less business. All of this while still paying salaries of club staff and players.
In the best-case scenario this will continue through until late April and many clubs will find that financial burden too much as they sail close to the wind. We could be about to discover how many clubs are living hand to mouth. The short termism of football is notorious in the pursuit of promotion, or a European place or to stave off a relegation dogfight. Then there are the businesses around football; the burger vans, the pubs… they will all feel the financial repercussions of this virus and it may well be that when you next go to the match your favourite eatery or hostelry is no longer there.
This is all doom and gloom of course, and I apologise for that, but it is best case scenario I'm afraid. The EFL have announced a package that brings forward payments due and provides loans to clubs. This will be welcome of course, but I am not absolutely convinced it will be enough for some.
The next issue we have is player contracts. Sunderland alone have a vast number of contracts running up in the summer. If the league were to extend for a period into July, then it would be unsustainable to finish the season. Many players across the leagues would be out of contract and could walk away from their club. That may appear mercenary in the seemingly financially abundant world of football; but if you're a lower league player you aren't earning huge amounts and you still have a mortgage to pay. If the club offers you a three month extension to your contract you have a choice to make. Do you sit those three months out in the hope you earn another or at least earn a better contract elsewhere, or do you attempt to beat the rush and secure yourself a new club now?
So, for me, the best option is to call the season to a close now. I realise that means we're in League One again, but these are very extenuating circumstances with no easy solutions. If you do curtail the season now; then what? Firstly, do you call the season null and void? No champions, no promotions, no relegations. I can imagine the rejections to that would be huge. If you're a Leeds fan your club would lose around £40m in that scenario. If you're a Norwich fan you probably aren't that concerned.
There is precedent in Chile last year where the league was suspended with 6 games to go. They tried to restart the league but it didn't work out and so they cancelled the league. Teams in the division below were promoted if they were in the relevant position and nobody was relegated. This naturally has an effect as you move through the leagues and, ultimately, increases the size of most leagues; but over the course of two seasons you could return to the status quo with increased relegations. All of this is not great news for Sunderland if this were the option settled on. We would not go up this season as only two would be promoted; then if we were to go up the following season we would be battling in the Championship with a financially depleted club where there were four relegations on the cards.
None of this is good news for Sunderland, but nor is it for other clubs across the UK. The leagues are meeting today to discuss extending the season to 30 June and then we will know a little more. In all of this though football is but a triviality; the damage to national economy and, therefore, local economy will be significant.
Take care everyone.