Nick Powell, Print Sport Editor, looks at four different approaches major football leagues have taken to their Winter seasons being halted by government Coronavirus measures.
In the space of a week in mid-March, 30 European Nations halted their Football leagues with postponements ranging from up to early April to indefinite ones. Of course, no tournaments returned then but amazingly, some Leagues have managed to return and many more are planning to in the coming weeks.
Which one has worked? Which is best? And what lessons can be learned for the future about how to deal with such crises going forward?
Approach #1: Void Season
The Dutch Eredivisie have taken this approach, which is to declare the season null and void, with no winner and no relegation. It is a controversial approach to say the least, denying teams that have worked to get into the classier section of the table the chance to contend or get a just reward for their efforts.
Ajax and AZ Alkmaar both sat on 56 points at the top of the table when the announcement was made, while Alan Pardew’s ADO Den Haag and RKC Waalwijk will breathe a sigh of relief, being seven and eleven points from safety respectively.
The head of the Dutch FA said it was a “bitter day” cancelling the Eredivisie season early and thought it “very doubtful” the Premier League would be able to restart when the announcement was made just over a month ago.
But though the top sides had the consolation of being given a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds and they should be well rested for next season, this decision seems somewhat hasty by the Dutch.
The Netherlands recorded just 103 new cases of Covid-19 on 1 June 2020, and though they are not completely over the pandemic, seem to have put the worst of it behind them. With 13 rounds still to play, it makes sense that they were not overly optimistic of finishing the season. But the lack of creativity in the decision to void it so early on has not helped anyone.
Ultimately, ADO Den Haag and RKC Waalwijk could have little complaint if they were relegated, and to have no winner is a decision which has been matched by very few other Leagues in World Football. Overall then, this was not the strongest approach by any measure
Approach #1 Rating: 3/10
Approach #2: Points per game or points achieved up to now, no matter where you finish
If the Dutch approach was controversial, this has caused even more dispute. Scotland’s Leagues, French Leagues and English Rugby (below the Men’s Premiership) have all opted to take this approach, either ending the season where it is or allocating remaining points according to how many points teams have already earned during the season.
Few teams could complain with PSG winning the title in France but it was a significant blow for Lyon, who were in the Europa League places before dropping out on points per game.
Toulouse were well astray at the bottom of the table, and Amiens would have struggled to survive, but the halting of the season was an overwhelming relief for Nimes. Stuck in the relegation zone and only saved by the fact the playoffs couldn’t be completed in the League below (Ligue 2), there would have been much relief in the famous Provencale city.
Hamilton survived in similar circumstances while Hearts, who were slowly beginning to have an improvement in form before the season was suspended, were sent into the Championship. Again, few would complain about Celtic winning the title, but with their two most senior coaching staff and 15 players leaving, this decision has had devastating implications for Hearts.
As with any decisions, there are those that have lost out. Those who have had to face disappointment in the cruellest of fashion, left thinking what might have been, particularly if this decision has long term implications. But as an overall solution this is by no means the weakest.
Allowing teams that deserve silverware to get it can only be a good thing. And while there will always be teams who suffer from such decisions, this has the dual effect of providing closure and allowing teams and the League to be adequately prepared for whatever the following season may hold. It does mean teams miss out on revenue, but at least they get extra time to manage their squad ahead of the 2020/21 season.
Approach #2 rating: 6/10
Approach #3: The “Everyone’s a Winner” Approach
This is much like Approach #2, minus the fact that no teams are relegated. Initially adopted by English Football League Two, and strongly considered by the Premier League, now will not be pursued. On the face of it, this seems to kill two birds with one stone. It allows the team that wins to get their reward whilst not forcing teams at the bottom end of then table to restart in front of empty crowds or face early relegation.
In practice, however, this solution is dependent on a few factors which are difficult problems to avoid, particularly for lower leagues. It is dependent on the league below being declared null and void, so there are not legal disputes about teams that could be promoted missing out.
At the same time, if a team is declared winner in that league and that league is below the top tier, they have a very strong case to be promoted to the league above, which may have different rulings in place.
The bottom line is, though this solution appears wonderful, it is wholly impractical with the implications it has on other leagues. Of course League Two were going to approve it, everyone wins. Stevenage, well astray at the bottom of the table, survive and four teams get promoted.
Indeed it is hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for Port Vale chair Carol Shanahan, despite her having to reluctantly approve the move which resulted in her team missing out on promotion despite being just one point off the play-offs. Coronavirus has damaged other clubs’ prospects around Europe far more.
So whilst this is clearly the best solution, it is not necessarily practical. That being said, if every club chasing promotion agreed to give up that ambition whilst still taking home silverware, it could work.
League Two have since opted to relegate a team anyway, but it remains to be decided whether that will be Stevenage or Macclesfield after a winding-up petition was brought to the latter by HM Revenue and Customs.
Approach #3 Rating: In theory – 10/10, In Practice – 1/10
Approach #4: Restart
Finally the new most popular approach is attempting to continue with the League behind closed doors. It was the German Bundesliga who started on 16 May 2020, and Spanish La Liga, the English Premier League and Italian Serie A will all follow suit in mid-June respectively.
Early on, its hard to see how players didn’t struggle with the eerie silence that greeted them in the opening rounds of the restarted Bundesliga, and certainly it is a very different experience as a fan, but there can be no doubt that the experiment has, overall, been a success.
It has been hugely successful for clubs and broadcasters, the latter of which have seen extraordinary viewing figures from around the World, as football fans, and sports fans in general, try to get their sporting fix from the only live team sport they can currently watch.
Arguably the no-fan atmosphere hasn’t helped home teams in big games, such as Borussia Dortmund, who may well have fared better against Bayern Munich in front of fans. Without fans they were ultimately beaten 1-0 at home to ensure the latter closed in on the title.
There will be no such issue in the Premier League, where Liverpool are 1000/1 on to win the title, and are likely to do so by a record margin. But down the bottom end of the table, there will be plenty of controversy if crucial home games are lost.
The clearest example of this might be Brighton and Hove Albion. Facing the daunting prosepct of Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United coming to the Amex Stadium before the season concludes, they will perhaps be the most disappointed not to have their home fans there to push them on to potentially important results.
Nevertheless despite nearly three quarters of Britons saying the return of the Premier League would not boost their morale in an early May poll, I would argue things have changed since then. Whilst I am vehemently opposed to rugby restarting, due to the nature of how Coronavirus is almost guaranteed to be spread among players, the fact the relegation debate has already been settled and the devastating physical and mental effects such a short break between seasons will have, football is different.
It will feel like a practice, it won’t be the same, but it can be done, and with what is at stake for clubs, it must be done. There has been no rise in cases from the return of the Bundesliga in Germany and clubs should not be relegated, nor denied promotion, with roughly three quarters of the season elapsed.
Approach #4 rating: 7/10 (The best of a bad bunch)