Wait It Out Or Bring Back Football Behind Closed Doors?

Sunderland fans at Wembley

Bring back football behind closed doors or wait it out until normality resumes? That’s the question Wise Men Say contributors Joe Owens and Jim Reay attempt to tackle.

Wait It Out

“Football without fans is nothing,” Sir Matt Busby.

What’s the rush? Admittedly, it’s been strange not having football to look forward to every week – and I say that loosely. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not important.

Yes, there’s the financial impact of it being gone. And especially in the lower leagues that could be huge.

But at Sunderland, and at a lot of other Championship, League One and Two clubs, everyone has been furloughed. So, Stewart Donald et al have already saved a huge chunk of what would usually be leaving club accounts.

Stewart Donald

And by bringing it back behind closed doors, there’s no regular ticket revenue and likely season card refunds to pay – or at least a free pass to watch the games you’ve already paid for. So, there’s little money to be gained from that avenue either.

But from a purely emotional standpoint, I don’t want fan-free football. Have you ever watched a European game with a supporter ban? It’s horrific. It’s not football.

Football match being played behind closed doors

And football is much more than just the 90 minutes. It’s the emotion; the connection that brings every single person in that stadium to that same town or city at the same time.

How often, particularly with Sunderland, has the actual match played second fiddle to enjoying a day out with mates, bumping into old friends or meeting up with family?

The two trips to Wembley last year certainly weren’t memorable for what happened on the pitch. It was the people of Sunderland taking over the capital.

Sunderland fans in London

For me, at least, football isn’t just about 22 people on a field kicking a ball about. It’s that combined with everything else. That’s why you fall in love with it; that’s the fix you crave. Otherwise, you might as well stay at home and play FIFA on the PlayStation.

Bringing back football too early; essentially making it a TV show in the process, isn’t what we all miss. It’s not even close.

On the premise that social distancing remains for a while longer, you won’t be able to experience anything that makes the beautiful game so special. It’s not the same sharing a last-minute winner over Zoom.

Sunderland fans celebrating

On top of that, there’s also the players. I can’t imagine them being too excited about putting their health at risk or playing in front of a skeleton TV crew.

So, my hope? Wait. Wait as long as possible. Wait until football can be football again. As football without fans is nothing.

Joe Owens

Bring Back Football Behind Closed Doors

Before going into this properly, I’d like to add the following disclaimer that everything discussed below is based entirely on the presumption of football (and other sports too) in England behind closed doors being given the green light by the government, and that behind closed doors games will be undertaken by players, management, referees, medical staff and others that are willing to do so, in as safe an environment as can be guaranteed.

Now, why should the season be concluded behind closed doors (BCD) rather than simply delayed until we fans are allowed back, or decided on a mathematical formula?

It’s worth noting that a ‘void’ of the season has been effectively ruled out according to those on the inside of ongoing discussions, so I won’t explore that one further here.

First of all, most estimates seem to place the time at which fans are going to be allowed back into stadia at the first part of 2021 at the earliest. That’s a pretty long time to wait for a season which is over 75% complete already to be finished off, especially the further down you go – most League 2 teams and a sizable amount of those in League 1 are already seriously struggling due to a lack of income. If they’re struggling now, less than 2 months after seasons paused, how will they be coping if they still can’t play in front of crowds by Christmas?

It’s my guess that, without help, sadly a lot of them won’t be around for us to find out.

When this is combined with the seeming openness of the government to allow (or at least explore the possibility of) football to be played BCD in the UK, it appears that if we want to see any football at all in the foreseeable future it will need to be from the sofa rather than the stands. While this is not mine nor probably anyone else’s first choice, it might be that we have no other option, and neither may the clubs that we support.

Sunderland fans at Wembley

If the season ends mathematically it resolves the issue of promotions/relegations, but the elephant in the room remains that there is no set date for when fans will be allowed back, and so you’d assume clubs unwilling/unable to finish this season BCD would also be unable to begin a new one in the same circumstances.

That would then lead to an indefinite hiatus from the game in general which would leave clubs with no income, out of contract players effectively unemployed, and in all likelihood swathes of clubs going out of business (even those using the furlough scheme under its current terms may find they are unable to claim for as long as they are unable to play – what do they do then?)

Ultimately, if the finances can be worked out it may be that football in England has no choice but to go behind closed doors for a while. That will be no mean feat in the EFL where nationwide interest is majorly reduced, but if the will is there then a combination of a new TV deal, sale of streaming passes and contributions from elsewhere (the FA, the Premier League etc), then it might just be possible. After all, the chance this income will be needed regardless is high, therefore it may be essential that clubs are at least open to the prospect of resuming BCD.

Empty Stadium of Light

The phrase a ‘new normal’ has been used frequently over the past few weeks to describe how life might look for the world as it’s institutions get back on their feet following COVID-19, and while none of us would choose to watch football this way under normal circumstances (unless you’re a Coventry fan) it may be that it’s a choice of this or an indefinite pause from which there’s no guarantee of return.

Keeping the leagues ticking over is surely the best way to ensure survival for as many of their clubs as possible – in a slightly convoluted metaphor; like a shark dies if it stops swimming, so it’s likely that many clubs will die if they are not playing games of football.

James Reay

We’d love to hear your opinion on what you think should happen. Get involved in the conversation on Twitter: @wisemensaypod @jwpowens or @jimmmyreay.