Professional football in England is on the “brink of collapse”. Most of the north east of England is back in lockdown and football matches are being called off due to players testing positive for covid-19. The turnstiles at the Stadium of Light are likely to remain locked for the foreseeable future, and there are three groups of people who are not responsible for this; Sunderland supporters, the club’s staff and, indeed, the club’s owners.
The statement from EFL Chair, Rick Parry, in response to the UK Government’s latest curtailment of the successful experiments to get football supporters back into professional football matches in England, was published on Sunderland AFC’s official website.
Parry’s statement made it clear that Football League clubs feel that, despite the significant new spike in the spread of coronavirus, they are better placed than almost any other industry to welcome paying customers back to their premises;
...we recognise that the UK is facing a significant public health crisis and that sport has to play its part in helping the Government manage the spread of the virus at this difficult time. This is why over many months we have helped the Government devise, refine and pilot stringent stadium protocols designed to keep supporters safe.
Staging professional football matches is one of the most heavily regulated areas of crowd management and any supporters attending EFL fixtures, in vastly reduced numbers, would have been required to adhere to social distancing and the rule of six.
Parry wants to pull together a £250m rescue package for his members and fan groups, including the Football Supporters Association, have called on fans who remain shut out to start to make some noise to their elected representatives in Westminster about the issue. Their “Sustain the Game” campaign seeks to hold politicians on account for their manifesto promises to create a fan-led review of football governance, but at the minute the game is seeking to avert a disastrous situation where dozens more clubs follow Macclesfield and Bury into oblivion.
️ On behalf of Rick Parry, the @EFL today provided the update linked below.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) September 23, 2020
Who is to blame?
It doesn’t matter if you’re on “Team Apocalypse” or “Team Reality” when it comes to balancing health and wealth in policy responses to the spike in coronavirus cases (or what you interpret this ridiculous delineation to actually mean), one thing is for certain; England’s well-documented comparative failure to deal effectively the pandemic in general, and to introduce a functioning Test, Trace and Protect system in particular, has led our club and football in general to this perilous position.
We now have an app that can be used to check into venues like stadiums and will notify you if and when someone you’ve been close to tests positive, but it doesn’t work if your phone is more than a couple of years old, and in England you can’t always log your covid-19 test results. This kind of technology, coupled with a functioning testing regime that the public can actually access, should allow Sunderland fans to travel to and from matches, and enter and exit the Stadium of Light safely.
In other countries, such as South Korea, similar apps have been up and running for months. But here we have a government-created shambles, and it’s ordinary citizens who are suffering - both through ill-health and through not being able to follow their passions, such as football.
Yet, as with almost everything it touches, instead of dealing with the problem at hand, the Tory government have sort to distract attention and shift the blame for their failures onto convenient tabloid whipping-boys. So while the casinos remain open and the grouse hunts continue, the open-air football stadiums frequented by people like us must remain closed.
Over six months into the crisis, as a result of the outcry at the suspension of test events, channels of communication have been opened between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the governing bodies of a range of sports that are at risk of financial ruin. Although time is short, this has created the space for fans - as citizens - to influence the eventual outcome.
And whilst the only certainty with this lot is that they will shamelessly change tack on a whim, the messaging coming out of Westminster right now is that, unlike any other industry, or any other part of society, the Tory Party now believes that a form of voluntary socialism should exist in English football alone.
They want the billionaire owners in the Premier League to bail-out the rest of the pyramid just as the restrictions caused by their incompetence bite ever harder into the game’s finances overall. This policy position betrays either their ignorance or ambivalence towards the governance and finance of football - particularly outside of the glamorous top flight.
But, whilst clearly wrongheaded, it is not entirely irrational. It taps into a seam of public and media opinion that holds that the game in general, and Premier League clubs and footballers in particular, have a special responsibility to those less fortunate than themselves beyond paying their taxes and funding the amazing work of charities like the Foundation of Light - a responsibility that theatres, or indeed hedge-funds, do not share.
Football and other sports clubs are certainly more than just ordinary businesses, they are community assets with a value above and beyond what is entered in their annual accounts. In Germany, whose football clubs are almost all majority fan-owned, the Bundesliga teams voluntarily gave to lower-ranked sides back in the spring in order to help.
The billionaire-owned Premier League clubs are a different matter altogether. Despite murmurs that the threat of government intervention in the game sits behind the demand for them to act to save the EFL, in public this is certainly not the case, and so far it has failed to act to financially support what is, after all, England’s national game.
In other countries, competent government has allowed for a safe return to football grounds, but learning from the good examples of others goes against the core tenets of their creed. Yes, first furlough and soon the Job Retention scheme have and will help clubs a little in their battle to survive, but in France, for example, interest-free loans have been made available to clubs and supporters have returned this season, and as such they’re in a much better position to survive this inevitable second wave.
A legitimate counter to calls for public money to be used to support the privately owned English game is that football, outside of the Premier League, was financially unsustainable well before the first reports of a novel virus emerged from Wuhan in late December.
But we’ve seen countless examples of moral hazards being overlooked in the past few months, with contracts handed out like sweets to Conservative donors, and Mr Johnson himself has repeatedly spoken of the vital morale boost that the game brings to people during lockdown.
The PFA is being asked to contribute to the rescue fund, but at the minute there are hundreds of unemployed footballers and more will follow them onto the free agents list if more clubs go bust. They might have millions in the bank due to their shrewd negotiation on the behalf of their members - the young men upon whose talents the game is built - but the notion of the employees bailing out the employers doesn’t sit well with this union man.
What can be done?
First and foremost, however frustrating life is right now, we all need to play our part in suppressing the current surge in Covid-19 in the North East and beyond. This is crucial to getting us back to watching live football and therefore the survival of our precious pyramid of four fully-professional leagues and the semi-pro tiers of below. It means not gathering to watch the Sunderland match on Saturday, as much as we might want to.
But, as we know, the crisis won’t be over and we won’t all be back in our seats until a vaccine or, perhaps, a “moonshot” universal daily testing regime is in place. Therefore, we as fans cannot allow short term solutions such as Premier League advances, conditional loans and limited government job retention schemes, things that will kick the can down the road somewhat, to let the government off the hook.
The time for stitches is over, not even nine will do. Major surgery is now required if the game as we know it is to survive.
As well as providing emergency financial support in the form of grants - not repayable loans - and allowing the experiments with fans in stadiums to continue where-ever police and local public health authorities deem possible, Johnson’s government need to live up to their manifesto commitment for a fan-led review of football governance. In terms of football finances, they really should look look again at the Collins-Methven plan for a Football Finance Authority, which is endorsed by the FSA, as the basis for a move towards greater sustainability and even an element of fan ownership across the professional game.
We, as fans, always have and probably always will put our hands in our pockets to support Sunderland AFC no matter whose name happens to be above the door at the Stadium of Light. But, with an economic crisis underway and mass unemployment looming, the pressure on household budgets are building, not everyone will be able to afford the £10 price of a streaming pass every week, which is the club’s primary source of revenue right now.
The almost universal hostility that Sunderland’s current owners generate amongst the fanbase is something that has, and will continue, to hold the club back in terms of the willingness of people to prioritise the club over other demands on their bank balances. The only long-term solution is for the club to be sold on to a viable and responsible new owner, but in the short-term we cannot expect serious investors to be scrambling over themselves to put their money into an industry that is struggling to keep itself afloat.
So far in this present crisis, and to his credit, Donald and his partners have supported the club - with the help of the furlough scheme - to remain afloat. And, although the days of Sunderland paying million-pound transfer fees ended with Will Grigg’s arrival, they have also added a number of players to the squad. The salary cap may be helping to drive down wage costs overall, at Sunderland we have players on multi-year deals that many others in League 1 do not. As it turns out, the FPP loan may be what saves the club this season if nothing more systemic is done across the EFL.
And yet, ironically, our almost universal desire to see Donald Out for good is actually a reason why it’s important that we keep spending with the club where we can. Demonstrating to potential new owners that Sunderland AFC is a thriving and viable business is important.
Charlton Athletic has been rescued from the brink of the abyss by Danish-American businessman Thomas Sandgaard, and although the price doesn’t appear to have been made public, back in January ownership of the club (which no longer includes ownership the Valley or the training ground) was transferred for £1. Peterborough chairman Darragh MacAnthony may have recently told the Roker Rapport Podcast that £35m was a more than fair price for asset-rich Sunderland AFC, but then he has a vested interest in League One clubs being valued highly right now.
As the crisis persists, the value of all businesses like Sunderland AFC that cannot welcome their customers, will surely continue to fall. They might well surprise us, and the deal that Nick Barnes and others have spoken of may yet come off, but I for one will not be holding my breath waiting for the mooted takeover to be completed.
However, I sincerely believe that, if we can, we should buy an official pass to watch Sunderland games live. The club has been urged to do more to improve engagement and the online match-day experience, and thankfully they have now announced improvements to the service with new commentators, new pre-match show and new mobile app being launched ahead of the game with Charlton on Saturday. This should help to keep people engaged and give them a richer experience and better value for their limited cash.
I do hope those who are not struggling for money, but are perhaps still using “parasite” feeds through dodgy firesticks to watch the games out of a sense of protest against the regime, will now think again and show their support for their club no matter who is in charge.
And I also hope that the club, which has joined with other events venues in the #LightItInRed campaign to highlight the plight of the wider entertainment industry, works with fan groups to put pressure on the government to act to do what we know it can to save #SustainTheGame. It is in everyone’s interests; fans, players, staff, owners, other local businesses and the city as a whole, for the government to live up to what it has promised.
It’s time for us to get our MPs to hold the government to account for its failures and get them to sort it once and for all.
Football, now more than ever, is a truly political issue.
Following the news that supporters will not be able to return to stadia this month, #SAFC is set to bolster it's digital platforms to keep fans in touch with their club, including...— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) October 1, 2020
A mobile app
New commentary team
Live pre-match show