IAN HERBERT: Premier League should draw a line under 2019-20 season

IAN HERBERT: Forget a desperate, behind closed doors season… with more than 30,000 dead from Covid-19 in the UK, the Premier League should be drawing a line under the 2019-20 campaign as clubs meet to discuss Project Restart on Monday

  • Former Man Utd captain Bryan Robson does not think this season should restart
  • By discussing a return to action in early June, football just can’t help itself
  • City of Liverpool has suffered with a death rate nearly twice the national average
  • In the world beyond the football toy shop, one lost title just doesn’t matter

It says everything about skewed perspectives that Bryan Robson’s illuminating observations about the current crisis elicited far less traction than his views on the merits of Bruno Fernandes, when a nuanced, intelligent interview he gave to Sportsmail was published a few weeks ago.

Robson, it turns out, has been spending time these desperate past weeks helping the elderly: telephoning them to make their football memories a part of the restorative process and also speaking to fellow ex-professionals who are struggling. 

And his conclusions about the devastation he was seeing all around? ‘I can’t see how we can even consider restarting sport when there are still hundreds of people dying every day in this country. It’s not right. It’s a nonsense.’

Former Man Utd captain Bryan Robson has been spending time helping the elderly recently

His observations are just as valid now as they were then. Hundreds a day are still perishing. 

Researchers from the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Imperial College, London, among others, warn that Britain, with a toll already eclipsing any other European nation, could suffer more than 100,000 deaths by the end of the year if ministers relax the lockdown too far and too fast.

And yet the daily Project Restart soap opera will strike up again on Monday as clubs attempt to agree what a restart might actually look like – with the division’s worst six teams all looking to play their ‘get out of jail free card’, as an executive at one of the other 14 describes it.

One of the few consolations when the world was first benighted by all of this was the notion of a slowing down and some new perspective on football. 

That the sport would not just pick up as it left off, with the same lunatic economics which pay players £200,000-a-week in the blink of an eye and leaves most clubs so dependent on the Premier League that it currently suits them best to play no football at all.

The re-calibration has not come to pass. The number of new Covid-19 cases stood at 18,000 a day when the government’s target rate was 4,000, one day last week. 

The city of Liverpool has been suffering desperately, with a death rate nearly twice the national average. There is still inadequate personal and protective equipment to meet future demand. Three of the Government’s tests for lifting the lockdown have not been met. 

The city of Liverpool has been suffering desperately during the current coronavirus crisis

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters is ploughing ahead with Project Restart 

Yet we’re actually debating starting the game on June 8: 29 days from now. Football just can’t help itself.

It is a treacherous path that this contact sport treads with a headlong march back. The fact that elite footballers have vulnerability to an illness like this has hardly elicited discussion but it should. 

The physical rigours of the elite football environment have an effect on players’ immune systems which have always them susceptible to viruses. Covid-19 is no different.

‘Professional players have been shown to be regularly immunosuppressed,’ former Chelsea doctor Dr Eva Carneiro told me four weeks ago. 

‘This has been demonstrated by both blood tests and the rate and incidence of upper respiratory tract and other infections, which is how a virus like this starts. That’s due to the amount of sport they play.’

Ex-Chelsea doctor Dr Eva Carneiro says players’ immune systems are susceptible to viruses

Another Brighton player tested positive on Sunday, despite all the stringent measures designed to make squads safe on their return to training.

The weekend’s most significant comments came from Leyton Orient captain Jobi McAnuff, expressing fears that black footballers face an increased risk of death if the season was resumed amid the coronavirus crisis. 

Premier League players will feel the same. The Office for National Statistics suggests black men and women are up to four times as likely to die from the virus as white people in England and Wales. We are still waiting a better understanding of this.

McAnuff’s comments got a little media play but not a vast amount. Nothing to puncture the ongoing din about neutral venues. Wasn’t this supposed to be the age in which where the anxieties of the participants were supposed to be heard and mental wellbeing mattered? 

Jobi McAnuff is worried black footballers face an increased risk of death if the season resumes

These are life-and-death worries, no less. It’s all about the money, of course. The latest police chief to express entirely valid, though unfashionable concerns about the impact of a restart on resources – West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson – was also on the margins of a debate about how to ensure the clubs who have spent to the hilt won’t go bust.

Football must return because the alternative is financial Armageddon, we are told. Yet is that really so? Will broadcasters really demand their £400m or so of domestic TV rights back for games not played? 

Brighton chief Paul Barber confirmed a third player has been diagnosed with Covid-19 at club

Will Sky and BT really want to be the ones who sank football? Will banks will be willing to foreclose on a club at a time like this, with all of the accompanying opprobrium?

There will be a financial reckoning, certainly. Players earning perhaps £200,000-a-month, not each week. Clubs forced to play their 17-year-olds because they cannot afford as big a squad, Fewer agents. Poorer agents. 

Clubs having to live within their means, year-in, year-out, like Burnley – who pay no more than £50,000-a-week in wages and retaining cash reserves that would sustain them for about eight years were they relegated from the Premier League tomorrow.

The lost title to Liverpool does not matter in the world beyond the football toy shop 

Talk to some of their people about whether a salary cap in the EFL would create an impossible gulf between the Premier League and the rest. They think they would manage fine, just like they have always done.

Instead of another seething morass of arguments about where a spectral, desperate, behind-closed-doors season should take place, the Premier League should be accepting it is over, now. It should be drawing a line on the 2019-20 season. 

The disappointment to Liverpool would be incalculable after searching 30 years for the cherished. But a new season will dawn, perhaps by September. Ask the families of the 30,000 taken by this virus within these shores what loss looks like. In the world beyond the football toy shop, one lost title just doesn’t matter.

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