By Chris Dunlavy
Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt says common sense has ﬁnally prevailed after all elite football in England was suspended until April 2.
Coronavirus – more accurately Covid-19 – has so far killed 21 people in the UK. And with cases continuing to rise, the government has now moved from its Contain phase of planning to Delay.
Unlike his European counterparts, PM Boris Johnson has not yet ordered the cancellation of large sporting events. But after several positive tests within football – including Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta – the Premier League and EFL met on Friday morning and unanimously agreed a temporary shutdown.
“It’s sensible, isn’t it?” said Holt, whose side were due to play a League One fixture at Portsmouth yesterday. “To do anything else was completely untenable for me.
“My mother is 76. She’s had cancer. I’ve made it quite clear to her that she’s not to go into any crowded spaces. Yet I was supposed to stand here and tell our fans and players that it’s fine to travel to Fratton Park? Come on.”
Holt is angry that the football authorities did not act more decisively, despite government advice advocating business as usual.
“If I was in charge of the EFL we’d have stopped a week ago,” he said. “And I’d already be looking at the damage to clubs and working out how to finance it.
“Why have we spent the week talking about whether games get played or not? Why weren’t we talking about the situation in Italy, where nearly 1,000 people have died for no other reason than poor management?
“The Italian government – people who’ve lived through it – were telling us to act. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared covid a pandemic. Yet we were talking about whether a game of football should be played.
“It’s absolutely crazy. The EFL, the Premier League, UEFA. All they were interested in was getting games on.
“All those Atletico Madrid fans travelling to Liverpool from Spain, a country where 36 people had died. What are people thinking?
“It’s alright saying we’re just following government advice, but what if the advice is wrong? It was in Italy.
“I don’t agree with Boris Johnson and the medical officers. Their approach seems to be to let it become widespread, let people die and everyone left will be immune. It might make scientific sense, but I’d rather keep vulnerable people alive for as long as possible.
“I can’t stand here and tell you I’m right. We’re all of us – the authorities, the government, me and you – flying by the seat of our pants.
“But for what it’s worth I think we need to shove any concerns about football aside and focus squarely on fighting this virus. On saving people. Because whoever said football is more important than life and death is wrong.”
Holt has spent the last fortnight drawing up contingency plans and says Accrington’s staff will be paid in full during the suspension.
“But they’ll have to follow certain rules,” he adds. “If you’re supposed to be self-isolating and end up in the pub, I’ll consider that gross misconduct.”
More widely, however, there are concerns that Football League clubs reliant on cashflow could struggle to meet their financial commitments. Southend and Macclesfield have already failed to pay their wages for February and with ticket revenue accounting for roughly 33 per cent of all income across EFL clubs, it is likely that many lower league sides will encounter similar problems.
“There’s no doubt that in the lower leagues – including the Championship – lots of clubs have existing cash-flow problems,” said Tony Stewart, the long-serving chairman of Rotherham United.
“This can only exacerbate the situation.
“You still have to pay the players. You still have to cover the overheads. We’ll be OK. Fifty years in business has told me that you need to keep something back for a rainy day.
“But it will now expose certain clubs who’ve been run too close to the wire. I think there will be clubs crying out for help and assistance. The question is, how do you help them?
“Will the EFL get together and come up with some ideas? Will the banks put their hands in their pockets in terms of loans or overdrafts? We just don’t know.” Stewart’s sentiments were echoed by Holt, who has been a persistent critic of loss-making clubs.
“The EFL is reaping what it’s sown,” said Holt, though the league say clubs have been looking at new sustainability measures for some time.
“P*** poor management. P*** poor financial regulation.
“There’s no two ways about it. They’ve allowed a situation to develop where the balance sheets are so undercapitalised that the slightest shock can send clubs under. And we’re talking days, not months.
“They’ve set themselves up for this failure. When a few missed games can kill clubs, it just shows you that the rules around losses are wrong.
“You can’t rely on insurance. Most insurance policies – unless you pay an absolute fortune – don’t cover acts of God. So unless the government intervenes and reclassifies covid in a certain way, that is how this will be viewed.
“At the minute, we’re talking about a deferred payment because games will kick off again on April 2. That’s survivable – it’s no different to if it snowed twofeet deep for three weeks.
“If it doesn’t restart, I think the banks will need to be sensible. I’ve spoken to our bank and told them the situation. They’ve said that, so far as they’re concerned, I’m doing the right thing and they’ll support me. Whether they do or not, we’ll see.”
Kieran Maguire, author of The Price of Football and a senior lecturer in economics at the Liverpool Management Centre, isn’t convinced.
“I don’t know how those cash-flow issues are going to be addressed,” he said. “I can’t see the banks reaching out to people to give them emergency overdrafts and things.
“And the trickle-down effect is significant. At the stadium you have lots of people working there who are reliant upon a four-hour shift once a fortnight, and that is the difference between paying some bills and not paying some bills. In terms of personal finance, I think a lot of people are going to suffer.”
Holt, though, maintains that fighting the coronavirus outbreak must take precedence over all other concerns.
“I always say to my staff that if you’re in a dark place and you don’t know which way to turn, stand still and take stock,” he adds.
“In time, you’ll see the way. But if you blindly set off down the wrong path you might not get back. We were in danger of doing that.
“Because winning matches and leagues, even the survival of clubs – none of that matters in the face of this crisis.
“The only thing we need to think about is keeping parents and grandparents alive. Nobody should be thinking beyond that.”