KNOCKOUT BLOW: How can football learn from the 2020 Covid crisis going forward? Picture: Matt Bristow
By Chris Dunlavy
Danny Cowley spent 15 years as PE teacher, and those icy days on the playing fields of Essex are not easily forgotten.
That much was obvious when the Huddersfield Town boss was tackled by an 11-year-old girl during a recent post-match press conference.
Warm, honest, uncondescending. Cowley had that kid beaming. And ever the teacher, he finished with an educational message.
“Keep working at school and make sure you get your qualifications,” he said. “Then maybe you can come back and be a journalist one day. It’s really easy. All you have to do is sit on your computer, drink tea and you’ve always, always got hindsight on your side.”
Touche, Danny! Hindsight is indeed a writer’s accomplice, sprinkling clarity and logic over the otherwise arbitrary gloop of professional sport.
Newcastle’s collapse in 1995-96 is routinely attributed to gung-ho naivety, a crap defence and Kevin Keegan’s susceptibility to the mind games of Alex Ferguson. It is a tale repeated with such frequency that it is now accepted fact.
But what if Peter Schmeichel hadn’t produced the game of his life in Manchester United’s 1-0 robbery (sorry, victory) at St James’ Park?
What if Graham Fenton – who scored just 13 times in seven Premier League seasons -– had not netted a late three-minute brace to sink the Toon at Ewood Park?
Had serendipity altered those events, or any one of a million others, the title might have gone to the north-east and the narrative would be completely different.
We might even remember, now and then, that Newcastle’s supposedly useless back four conceded just two more goals than United that season.
In sport, success and failure are determined to a large extent by fortune and happenstance; it is history that adds a storyline.
Hindsight, then, can be misleading. But it can also teach valuable lessons, something Cowley would no doubt appreciate.
In popular culture – and many a naff movie – the eighties are painted as an era of squalor and thuggery on the terraces. It is an exaggeration, but the lurid image has fostered a necessary determination to clamp down on any hint of the bigotry and violence that once gave football such a bleak reputation.
Football’s Covid crisis will one day be similarly judged. History will not recount the endless wrangling, the circuitous arguments, the vested interests and the lawyers cackling with anticipatory glee.
Nor will it document the sense that lower league clubs were reduced to scrapping like rats in a sack whilst the Premier League twiddled its thumbs. It will be remembered, in all likelihood, as either a cataclysm that left football in ruins or a turning point that brought the game to its senses.
For the latter to happen, much needs to change. In the short-term, the reckless – and frankly disingenuous – pursuit of ‘sporting integrity’ by those with something to lose must give way to sustaining lower league clubs on the cusp of extinction.
Clubs like Macclesfield don’t care who qualifies for the Champions League. They care about paying the bills. “That should scare the life out of people,” said Stuart Webber, the director of football at Norwich City, this week. “And we’re not talking about it enough.”
Nor are we talking about the fact that clubs who rely on gate revenue for survival are facing the prospect of playing for five months behind closed doors. They can’t do it. They won’t do it.
It is the biggest elephant in a room resembling a Serengeti watering hole, yet nobody seems to be formulating a plan, a support package or even any guidance.
Longer term, catastrophe protocols are critical. The formulation of a crisis fund to support vulnerable clubs, and players unable to find employment.
Clear rules governing a shutdown, agreed by the FA and every league. There are various permutations, but here’s one example.
If less than two thirds of the season has been completed and no football has been played for more than six weeks, the campaign is automatically declared null and void, with promotion and relegation decided on points-per-game.
Had clubs signed up to such rules in August, everybody would now be planning for life behind closed doors in the mother of all recessions, not squabbling like toddlers.
That is not a criticism. Nobody was prepared for this. But the scientific community is convinced that a global pandemic will strike again and to use the half-baked, expedient conclusion that inevitably ends the current crisis as a precedent for the future would not be sensible.
Other factors are desirable, of course. Salary caps, greater financial transparency, a reduction in parachute payments.
But if football can look back on the Covid crisis of 2020 and say that clubs were saved and the future insured, then hindsight will treat it kindly.