After the strangest hiatus in the history of football, the English Premier League (EPL) season resumed last week as a ghostly shadow of its former self. The silence of the empty stadiums was in eerie contrast to the sighs of relief and jangling nerves emanating from the corridors of power.
While Liverpool’s coronation is a formality, the hope is that the remaining battles for survival and European places will provide a climax worth the risk. But the biggest uncertainty of Project Restart is not where the clubs will finish, but whether they will finish — and what happens if they do not.
Despite holding more meetings than the Vietnam Peace Talks, they failed to agree to a formula for such a contingency. Hence the decision to kick off in midweek with the two outstanding fixtures from Matchday 29. By ensuring that all have played the same number of matches, a points-per-game solution becomes less contentious.
But a fragile unity was maintained only by deferring a resolution that all 20 clubs hope they will never have to make. And the absence of a Plan B gives critics of the resumption plenty of ammunition. It is also claimed the sole motivation is money and that the players are being used as guinea pigs.
Given all this, worries about the disease itself and the open warfare over how the season should end, it was no wonder that the long-awaited kick-off felt like a victory.
Of course, much more than the £762 million (RM4.08 billion) owed to broadcasters is riding on it — for both the UK and the world’s premier sport. We all know it will not be the same and that £340 million has already been agreed upon as compensation to broadcasters for the “inferior” product being served up.
But even an EPL “Lite” will be welcomed by football-starved fans around the world, while the UK government hopes it will be “a morale booster” for the nation. What is beyond doubt is that it would be a catastrophe for the brand if the spoils were to be decided in a courtroom and not on the field.
An awful lot can still go wrong. The British government’s handling of the crisis does not inspire confidence, and the league is one sequence of unfavourable results away from seeing the drama drain from the key issues. But, given a fair wind and no significant spike in Covid-19 cases either inside or outside football, they might get away with it. The final whistle will sound on July 25.
The coming weeks will be nothing if not frenetic. There is the FA Cup to squeeze in too, while European competitions are to be completed by the end of August. Normally, by then, a new season would be well under way, but planning for that is another round of Zoom encounters.
Given the obstacles, completing the 92 fixtures would be a monumental achievement. Besides saving over £400 million, it would send a message that the EPL is a show that must go on — even without a live audience. And playing for real would be worth its weight in gold.
So far, so good, then, with less than 20 positive tests out of some 1,400 carried out at the time of writing. And after all the bickering in the darkest days of lockdown, there is now unanimity about getting it done. Even doubters have come on board, although they are keeping one eye on the lifeboats.
But amid the strangeness of the setting and tedious protocols, one all-too-familiar sign of normality has returned — the impending resumption of big money transfers.
Just when sanity seemed to be making inroads into the competition, none other than the man who played fantasy football with a real club is back on his PlayStation. Roman Abramovich, whose billions drove the great boom of the Noughties with his backing of Chelsea, sniffs another opening.
Having been barred from an active role at Stamford Bridge because of the UK’s Spygate spat with Russia, he has lain low in self-imposed exile. But with an unspent fortune from two transfer windows burning a hole in his back pocket, what better time to splash the cash than when your rivals are hiding theirs under the mattress?
There is no more graphic illustration of how he could drive a digger through the hopes of a more even playing field than Chelsea beating champions-elect Liverpool to top German striker Timo Werner. Feeling the chill winds that have wiped half-a-billion pounds off the EPL’s worth this year (according to Deloitte), the Reds got cold feet about meeting the player’s £53 million buyout clause.
Anticipating a substantial loss of revenue and a correction in the transfer market, Liverpool’s owners pulled out of the deal. Unlike Chelsea, the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) has no sugar daddy to turn to and must make ends meet.
The shock was all the greater as FSG had not hesitated to pay world-record fees in recent years and received windfalls from playing triumphs. Predictably, it sparked a meltdown on Liverpool fan sites, with many blasting the owners’ prudence.
But weren’t FSG reacting to the new reality? Besides the loss of matchday income from spectators and sponsors for the foreseeable future and a broadcasting shortfall to pay, they expected their own prize assets (player values) to take a trim. It all seems eminently sensible and the economics is something only a sugar daddy could ignore.
Besides Werner, Chelsea have been linked with three more coveted young stars — Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell — and with their respective clubs not offering any post-Covid discounts, spending could head north of £200 million.
It will be fascinating to see whether such extravagance — not seen since Abramovich first bought the Blues in 2003 — will reinvigorate the market and wreck hopes of a fairer distribution, or be regarded as one very rich man’s folly.
Ominously, there could be other aberrations. If Saudi Arabia’s proposed takeover of Newcastle United — currently under scrutiny by the EPL because of piracy issues — is given the green light, it could also fuel a new round of spending.
And there is Manchester City, who have to wait a month for the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s verdict on their appeal of a two-year ban from Europe. The Abu Dhabi-owned club’s budgets could well hinge on it.
So, there is much to keep the EPL bean counters as well as the fans holding their breath. At stake are the league’s paramountcy and the opportunity to curb excesses. It would be a shame if, after months of democratic debate and hard-earned compromise, the new normal were to look just like the old normal.
Bob Holmes is a long-time sports writer specialising in football