No fans in the stands ’til the New Year and no relegation for the current season – but still no decisions set in stone from the Football League just yet. This ain’t just us having a beer and taking the lead (though we are available). It’s the word to emerge after a call between Bristol Rovers PFA rep Alex Rodman and his team-mates went public. And this came after the EFL met with club owners, other pros and Gary Neville. On Zoom. Probs.
It counts for little right now, of course. What comes next for the 2019-20 season all comes down to the government advice. For us mere mortals not hanging out with Professor Chris Whitty, 7 May is the next date that we expect to know anything. But the EFL ain’t gonna be stepping out of line with that guidance. And it’s only when we know what that exit strategy looks like can the men in suits make their calls. It’ll be three months after we last played.
So, what came out of the leaked call that got everyone talking?
No-ticket, capacity non-attendances ’til 2021
We’re not sure if you had June in mind for the season to restart, but your hopes are being filed under “optimistic”. Even if the action can get back underway, you’ll be fortunate to be let back into the Lamex this side of Christmas. “Definitely won’t be playing any games with fans… this year,” said Rodman. “[They’ll] be looking at January 2021 – unless a cure pops up.”
Social distancing, in all its buzzword glory, is the reason for this. And it’s not like Boro’ are in a position to test everyone that wants to turn up to a match. The EFL apparently needs 66,000 tests for the players alone before a ball can be kicked. That’s not going to be such a great look for the EFL if they eat up a load of tests that could be better used on NHS or other key workers. As such, it means we’re looking at a season that can’t be completed.
As Rodman says: “If we are still being told to social distance, how we can run around and tackle and… everything to play football when you’re meant to be social distancing? Unless we’re doing weekly test of clubs, a lot of people… can’t even see the season finishing.”
Promotion – but no relegation…
It takes us onto the next talking point and that’s the fate of clubs if the season were to be ended here and now. Well, after 7 May. Rodman explains to his Rovers team-mates that the idea is to decide things on ‘sporting merit’. But only at one end of the table. The plan would be to promote three teams across the board – with no relegation. It means there’ll be 23 sides in the Premier League next season, 27 in the Championship and so on.
Yet, there’s one issue that still needs sorting if the EFL does end up going with that. As it stands, the league is one team light after the demise of Bury. That means you could pull one up from the Conference to balance the numbers. Then, however, do you get another two up as well? This may be tough when only two come up usually, while the playoffs are far from certain. And then there’s the question of what the Conference authorities do.
… and then battle royale relegation
The elephant in the room here is that such an idea could spare our blushes in a big way. Or will it only delay things? Given that we’ve made an absolute mess of steering clear of the one single relegation spot this season, the idea of avoiding more relegation places is iffy. But that’s by the by. Until it’s confirmed, it’s not something that can be planned for.
Brighton are looking for relegation to be taken off the table if starting the Premier League season back up meant playing at neutral venues. So, it could well be a realistic option.
Free agents or playing pro bono?
At the top of everyone’s list, however, is how best to protect the health and wellbeing of the players. No club wants to send players out if it’s not safe to do so. But continuing the season is complicated by the matter of contracts; many of which expire on 30 June. Phil Wallace himself says that we’ll only have two lads on the books going into July.
As Rodman reveals, there are no means to make us (or other clubs) extend contracts to cover the rest of the season. If it stretches beyond 30 June. Which it obviously will. “The general consensus from clubs now is that… they won’t be paying players extra or extending contracts because they can’t afford to do it”.
At the end of a contract, a player receives severance pay to cover them if they don’t get a deal at a new club. That’s our understanding, based on what Rodman says. And what the question now being asked of players is whether they’d play on through July “knowing you wouldn’t be paid severance pay for the month of August”. It was put out to a survey to get rough numbers. And that ain’t something that is public knowledge at this point.
But it’s hard to see how a team could complete the season if their squad is depleted. Or is it? Could sides be forced to field whatever 11 players they could lay their hands on?
Like many other questions, the hope is that 7 May will be when the government sets out a roadmap for the next stage – and how or what reopens. It’s when the EFL will get a better handle on what to do with the 2019-20 campaign – from the chances of restarting to what happens with promotion and relegation. Only then can clubs make their own plans too.