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15 May 2020updated 16 May 2020 8:42am

“F**k the nation’s morale“: Premier League return plans expose its detachment from reality

While ministers have exploited the status of footballers during the pandemic, the sport’s premature restart puts money over safety.

By Rohan Banerjee

That Danny Rose does not “give a fuck about the nation’s morale” has been the focus of many national newspaper headlines over the past few days. But then, “Danny Rose expresses legitimate concerns over his personal safety in the workplace amid a deadly global pandemic” is a bit wordy, isn’t it?

The 29-year-old England and Tottenham left back, currently on loan at Newcastle United, went on an expletive-laden video rant via Instagram on Monday, criticising the Premier League’s plans to resume the 2019/20 football season. These come despite the daily death toll for Covid-19 in the UK still being in the hundreds, and much of the rest of the economy still being in lockdown.

Rose described the top flight’s “Project Restart” – an elaborate scheme to conclude the fixture list behind closed doors, without crowds, and possibly at neutral venues – as “bullshit”.

He said:

“People’s lives are at risk… Football shouldn’t even be spoken about coming back until the numbers have dropped massively… Football should be one of the last of things that needs to be sorted.”

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Rose has a point. Yet the clamour to restart football, and specifically the Premier League, has been bubbling in the background since lockdown began.

The notion of “sporting integrity” – namely, that ending the season as it stands or voiding it would be an unfair way of deciding European qualification, relegation and promotion places – sounds like an excuse. Football, particularly at the highest level, is a money-maker.

While it’s understandable that clubs and ancillary businesses, which rely on match-day footfall for a lot of their income, would want football to return, not to mention fans who are sorely missing their weekly escapism or social activity, too little thought has been afforded to players. Football is a contact sport, after all.

Players have been tangled in controversy throughout the coronavirus pandemic. At the top end, high-earners have been scapegoated. Consider that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, urged Premier League footballers to “play their part” and donate significant portions of their wages to the NHS (as it happens, they have done) on 2 April, but directed no such instruction to, say, billionaire Conservative donors.

Narrowing the narrative of football to simply a story of the Premier League belies the reality that outside of it, the national game is not anywhere as rich. The lower down the pyramid you go, the more concerned clubs and players are about keeping the lights on. “We’ve got bills to play, just like everyone else,” furloughed Accrington Stanley captain Seamus Conneely told BBC Sport earlier this month.

The Premier League is the only division in England that could comfortably afford to restart – in terms of the cost of health and safety protocols, such as regular Covid-19 testing, huge amounts of protective clothing for playing and coaching staff, and deep cleans of football grounds.

The possibility of playing games behind closed doors at neutral venues simply does not exist for clubs in lower leagues, and so those competitions will either have to be cancelled, or delayed until such a time that less extensive measures could be installed.

As it stands, the government has opened the door to a phased return to football from early June. But this, as Rose has pointed out, feels too soon. Yes, Germany’s Bundesliga returns this weekend, but Germany has recorded nowhere as many Covid-19 deaths.

On Wednesday, the Times published a column arguing that it was “on balance” fair to put players’ lives at risk for the sake of football returning.

“The fatality of younger people with coronavirus is tiny, if not negligible,” wrote Matthew Syed. “According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people under the age of 30 who have so far died from Covid-19 in England and Wales is roughly one per million.”

The view of players as tradeable commodities, rather than people, has worsened among the game’s elders since the outbreak of Covid-19. At the same time, footballers have been vilified in some quarters for earning market rate wages in a market they don’t control. And when they do donate their money, these acts of kindness are given caveats like, “Well, it’s nothing to him anyway”. 

Match-fit footballers can still carry Covid-19. They can still transmit it. They still have family members. And many coaches, managers and support staff, who would still need to be present even at games behind closed doors, are over the age of 30.

It all comes down to money. But the money that players earn is dwarfed by the cash that Premier League club owners, of whom 15 are billionaires, have in reserve.

The Premier League itself is concerned with having to refund broadcasters if games do not end up being shown. This is understandable, but again, the league has enough money put away that it can cope with the loss.

The Premier League has a responsibility to the safety and wellbeing of its players and coaches. It also has a responsibility to the endurance of English football in general that it should not shirk. If all top-flight clubs in England donated £300,000 to each League One and Two club, for example, the total cost of this would be less than £15m. For context, last summer, Newcastle spent nearly three times that amount on buying a forward who has scored one league goal all season.

Football is important to the UK economy – both in terms of tax contributions and how it supports hospitality and tourism. But the government and the game’s authorities must not blind themselves to the fact that Covid-19 is still very much at large.

It would be wrong to rush football back before coronavirus numbers have dropped significantly. It would be wrong to pay for mass testing at football grounds when testing won’t be available to all care homes until 6 June.

If delaying football a little while longer means that the 2019/20 season cannot be concluded as people would like, and if delaying football means clubs can’t afford to spend huge transfer fees and have to field more academy players in the future, then these feel like very reasonable sacrifices for securing people’s long-term safety.

Danny Rose is not a work-shy millionaire who wants to stay indoors. He is a human being, who no one should begrudge for wanting to keep himself and his family safe.