Self-interest, irreversible damage, wiping the history books: Why voiding current season would be the ‘morally’ incorrect answer to football’s current conundrum

(Image courtesy of JPIMedia)

Per David Ornstein of The Athletic on Thursday, a senior Premier League official has claimed it is “morally wrong for football to even be discussing playing behind closed doors while the coronavirus crisis is at its peak.” 

In fairness, early talk of football’s resumption seems futile given society’s ongoing battle with COVID-19. However, the discussion has stemmed from an overwhelming initial outcry for the season to be declared null and void – claims it originally seemed reflected the self-serving views of fans based on rivalry rather than rationality. Then Karen Brady and others waded in.

Now, as it is unanimously agreed upon that overcoming the pandemic is priority number one, the question of morality remains regarding football’s task ahead. It cannot afford to rewrite history and cancel the season. Postponement, for as long as necessary in order to reach a natural conclusion to this season as a priority, is the only viable option.

According to Ornstein’s article, a number of Premier League teams think playing games behind closed doors is ‘wrong on moral grounds,’ but it certainly seems a morally preferable option to completely annulling the season altogether. With regards to the question of whether or not the season should be played to its natural conclusion, debate has become rife with self-interest. The discussion of football’s big question (and only one given the absence of any game-based talking points) has ramped up in recent weeks and has centred around the two sides of the argument regarding Liverpool’s Premier League title. Such is the tribalism of football, as domestic matters ground to a halt, both sides planted their flags firmly in the ground.

During a time when football’s beautiful side has rightly shown itself in the form of wage deferrals, stadium openings for health services and huge donations to the fight against the outbreak, the ugliness of self-interest has provided a stark contrast. Following Brady’s comments just a week earlier, Rio Ferdinand was seemingly unable to put personal affiliations to one side by calling for the season to be scrapped. In a feeble effort at defending his view having come under fire, Ferdinand claimed that it was nothing to do with his Manchester United connections.

It was one of a growing number of examples of its kind, but everyone has their own view, likely clouded by their own naturally self-serving judgement. In a time when football takes the backseat, we must talk about its eventual restart with as much maturity and neutrality as possible. We are allowed to miss football, but we are also allowed to think rationally about its resumption in its absence. The timeframe isn’t crucial — within reason, depending on how quickly the extraordinary work of medical staff and volunteers around the country and eradication of the virus allows — but morally we must finish the season whenever that is. If next season must be delayed as a result, then so be it.

Liverpool, of course, would be the big losers if Ferdinand got his wish, but the talking points go far beyond just their long-awaited title. Try telling those associated with Leeds — who sit top of the Championship with nine games remaining, sitting tantalisingly close to a long-awaited return to the top flight — that their chance at promotion is gone for another year. What about the play-off chasers in the EFL? There are a number of complexities which expose the push for season cancellation; so many memories and important footballing moments to be played out that cannot be simply discarded.

Granted, finishing the season would require drastic measures, but as long as it is done, the integrity of the game can remain intact. Those calling for a premature end to the season aren’t considering all possibilities and remain part of a not-so-silent minority. Being patient and using this time to plan will involve a variety of potential solutions, including talks which are already underway. These would perhaps have to place this season into a larger block of two to three years; one possible solution could be to fuse the paired anomalies of the current global health crisis and the first winter World Cup to be held in Qatar in 2022 to create a new-look football calendar. This is an unprecedented situation, therefore must be dealt with as such and with measures that have never been required before.

Whatever the outcome, there is no rush to start a new season in August, certainly given that the current campaign is barely three quarters finished. But cancelling a season and pretending it never happened seems lazy and ill-principled, with the cancellation of non-professional leagues giving the EFL and Premier League a series of what the two organisations, along with the Professional Footballers’ Association, called “difficult decisions.”

Insisting that his views come from a neutral place, Queens Park Rangers manager Mark Warburton summed up the necessity for the current season to be finished when speaking to Sky Sports News.

“I feel so strongly that for the integrity of the game — we’re 80 per cent through — we absolutely have to finish this season,” Warburton said.

“I keep hearing comments about next season – there has to be pain somewhere, there has to be change, it can’t be all as normal…We’ve got to adapt, we can’t talk about unprecedented times, unchartered waters, and then expect no change.”

Earlier this week, it was announced that every league below the sixth tier of English football has been voided for the 2019-20 season, meaning no promotions or relegation. In a statement posted on social media, the FA said: “The decision taken to end the 2019/20 season across Steps 3-7 of the National League System, the women’s football pyramid and the wider grassroots game was made by committee representatives for the respective leagues, and was supported by The FA Board and The FA Women’s Board.”

It was a shocking ruling and added a new dimension to the ongoing decision facing leagues higher up the English football ladder. At best, it seemed a panicked decision that is likely to have major repercussions for a large number of community teams. At worst, it was an insensitive, premature one that could irreparably damage non-league clubs and the long-standing tradition of semi-professional football in this country as we know it.

The financial impact is likely to be irreversible for many of the affected clubs, particularly those in leagues reliant on income and already planning for next season. In response to the announcement, however, came an almost immediate response that formed part of a backlash likely to rumble on.

It was reported that a “growing number of non-league clubs are prepared to lobby the Football Association after the decision to cancel the season for steps three to seven in the pyramid,” with legal action potentially to follow. This is another one of the considerations facing the FA regarding the leagues above the non-professional ranks, as what’s to stop teams filing legal cases and boycotting participation in future competitions? It could get extremely messy and complicated, as it looks like getting in the non-leagues.

As the season is thrown out, the achievements of teams and players are with it. That is the case for Jersey Bulls FC who, having won 27 out of 27 games and already securing promotion from the Combined Counties League Division One, must now deal with their devastation caused by the season’s premature end and erase it from memory. It is a tragic end to a fairytale season for the club based in the Channel Islands, and a tragedy the like of which Liverpool and Leeds players will be desperate to avoid experiencing.

Jersey Bulls sat 20 points clear at the top of the Combined Counties Division One league table with 11 games to spare, having already guaranteed promotion. Now, an FA ruling cancels their achievements along with the season as a whole. (Image courtesy of @jersey_bulls on Twitter).

On the simplest of levels, we cannot pretend a season never happened. Players have trained and competed for months, coaches and their staff have plotted for hours on training grounds up and down the country and, perhaps most importantly, fans have paid their hard-earned money to see it all unfold. What’s more, with the prospect of games being played behind closed doors to finish the season becoming an increasing possibility, the importance of fans has rarely been clearer.

In the name of sporting fairness, talk of voiding the season must, itself, be voided. It is not a neutral option, nor can it serve as a simple reset of a world within which records are set, injuries occur and livelihoods are relied upon, as displayed in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid this week. By throwing away this season for good, there are repercussions far beyond a simple “everyone get fit and come back for next season.”

If that were fatefully decided upon, we would be living in a world in which Mason Greenwood is yet to score his first goal for Manchester United, while Sergio Aguero still tries to overtake Thierry Henry as the league’s top foreign goal scorer. Remember Son Heung-Min’s 90-yard run and finish versus Burnley in December, which won goal of the month? Or Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s scissor-overhead kick hybrid against Chelsea which won the award in January? They never happened.

It may seem trivial, but were the season to be declared “null and void” — a phrase the Premier League has warned its clubs not to use for legally protective reasons — the issue of internet-fuelled supporter ‘banter’ culture would reach an altogether different level. Whereas fans once jibed and taunted each other about memorable moments that did happen, they would inevitably now argue about the still vivid recollections of ones that didn’t – according to the history books. The result would be a situation even more unbearable than the current one.

As for the financial implications of such a decision, the possibilities are endless. How would the Premier League compensate teams? Would Norwich be entitled to their money for remaining in the league – an eventuality that seems unlikely if the fixtures were completed? How would promotion and relegation work to and from the EFL’s divisions? Could fans claim money back spent on tickets and travel following their teams? What about fines paid by clubs for incidents in games that didn’t really take place? There are too many complications and the backlash would be too significant; the leagues know this, which is why they must ultimately chase the right solution and find a way to complete the season.

Cancelling a season is unthinkable and would be unforgivable. The integrity of the game would be diminished, with everyone involved given a short break to dust themselves off, reset their memories and expected to start again. Cutting short a season only three quarters of the way through would ultimately allow winners to lose, and losers to win. That can’t happen.

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