Spying on Leeds United: 5 players to watch out for

Leeds Promotion celebrations
Leeds Promotion celebrations

Abiha Khan investigates Leeds United’s incoming Premier League squad. As the recently promoted West Yorkshire powerhouse go from spying to flying, she scouts their star players and the weaknesses that could put them at risk in the English top-flight.

Leeds United had one wish: a return to the Premier League after 16 painful years away. The answer to West Yorkshire’s prayers came in the form of manager Marcelo Bielsa. After narrowly missing promotion last year, the Argentine’s aggressive and high-pressing style sent The Whites soaring to the top of the table. Not even Leeds’s fans could quite believe this miracle.

Leeds are used to being under the football spotlight, be it financial freefall, their infamous dirty play, or the intense loyalty of their city-wide fanbase. Their proud fighting spirit sets them apart and they will be plotting their legacy akin to their rival Sheffield United’s success. With a lack of European tournaments, Bielsa’s powerful ‘murderball’ – enviable energy, brutal work-rate and non-stop running – will make Leeds players the perfect choice for a high scoring Fantasy Premier League season. Although fresh signings are required, they have a strong core of players who are more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Tyler Roberts – Attacking midfielder

Tyler Roberts

The 21-year-old has the versatility to adapt to the wing or as a centre-forward, and he’s found his feet this season with his precise and clinical ability in the final third. His star quality was most evident in his MOTM performance against Hull, just before lockdown, where Roberts came on as a 67th minute substitute for striker Patrick Bamford and scored the last two winning goals.

However, Leeds have suffered with injuries and Roberts is no exception to this. Bielsa will be keen to adapt his ‘murderball’ technique to ensure key players like Roberts can thrive in the top-flight without the threat of injury.

In terms of goal-scoring, Leeds can’t rely on Bamford’s clinical ability, with a shocking 33 chances missed this season, and more shots off target than any player in the Championship since 2012.  Therefore, they need to buy a strong striker who can translate the team’s high chance turnover.

Until this happens however, Bielsa could allow Roberts to step in as the main striker while swapping Bamford for the attacking midfielder position.

Pablo Hernandez – Attacking midfielder

Most non-Leeds fans will be familiar with the magician Pablo, or as ex-Leeds translator Salim Lamrani hails him, “the brain” of the team. Pablo is Leeds’s play-making answer to Santi Cazorla or David Silva.

At 35 years of age, Pablo may not feature much when Leeds return to the Premier League. But, there is no denying his winning form and fitness, as ‘Player of the Year’ Pablo has the highest points-per-game average of any Championship player to have played 1500+ minutes this season. He’s a main reason for Leeds’s promotion, creating the most chances per game (2.3) and generating the second most chances for the club (82) after Jack Harrison (87). His influence on Leeds is undeniable, and finding his replacement will be tricky.

No Pablo, no party.

Mateusz Klich – Midfielder

Klich works tirelessly for the team, having played a whopping 45 out of 46 games this season with 92 consecutive games under his belt. Rumour has it he missed his only game of the season – the guard of honour Derby game – with a hangover. In fact, Leeds Managing Director Angus Kinnear wrote in his programme notes ahead of the final game against Charlton: “We should all be very grateful that Klich can play football better than he can drink.”

With his insane track-record, not only is he destined to start every game next season, but the midfielder is effortless in his ability to perform highly amongst defensive figures. With 254 ball recoveries, 178 duels won, and the third-most tackles won per game for Leeds this season, Klich epitomises a true Leeds warrior and is integral to the Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ system. Only tricky-Pablo made more passes in the final third than Klich.

Not only has Klich proven his success at Leeds, but Poland boss Jerzy Brzęczek awarded him with a call-up to the national team after a four-year exile.

Klich is definitely one-to-watch in the Premier League next season.

Kalvin Phillips – Defensive midfielder

Kalvin Phillips celebrates goal

The Leeds-born midfielder has been the glue that binds the team with his dominating performances and merciless style of play. Kalvin is Bielsa’s second-best success story, after the promotion of course, as the most improved player at the club.

Before Bielsa’s arrival, Kalvin was a lost puppy with more errors in him than sense – it was hard to the midfielder going far. However, with Bielsa’s man-management, Kalvin has transformed into a fantastic defensive midfielder, integral for promotion with his key ability to win the ball back and provide for Leeds’ creative and attacking players.

Kalvin will be desperate to prove his ability in the Premier League. If he succeeds, he has a chance for a place in the England set-up, especially as a central-defensive midfielder, where the national side is currently lacking. Ultimately, Kalvin is Leeds through and through, and some view him as their key to future success.

Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas – Full backs

Last season, Leeds had the most clean sheets (22) and the least goals conceded (35) in the Championship. To maintain this excellent defensive record in the Premier League, Leeds full-backs Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas will have their hands full coming up against the likes of Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling and Adama Traore.

Offensively, Dallas has created 43 chances in 45 appearances, with Ayling managing a close 29 in 37. It seems however that Ayling edges it as the stand-out full-back due to his leadership, ‘big-game player’ persona and effective versatility – providing both vital goals and assists.  

A fan-favourite, Ayling has led the team through difficult moments in the year, notably confronting the camera after the Nottingham Forest 2-0 defeat. Not only does it seem Ayling is destined to become a future Leeds captain, but he brings a package of talent suitable for the Premier League.

Leeds United – a new dawn

Whatever your opinion on Leeds United as a football club, there’s no denying their seat at the top table has been vacant for too long, and with Bielsa at the helm, football fans will be eager to see how The Peacocks faire next season.

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Giving racism the red card: let’s keep up momentum

Ian Wright

Revered by many, black Arsenal and England legend Ian Wright has had an illustrious career warranting multiple titles and scoring 324 goals in the process.  

This May, he was called a “monkey” over social media by a teenager.

Methods of racism in football have evolved from solely being spewed in the stands and in the pubs, racist rhetoric also now emerges in the realms of social media. The ease of hiding behind a virtual barrier and unknown aliases encourages imbeciles to discharge irrational hate.

However, in today’s society racism is not exclusively bound by a political party, centralised group or idiots on Twitter. It rather makes up a poisonous psyche that’s materialised through discriminative narratives, unfair bias and intangible prejudice.

These factors are personified through the press. When black Manchester City winger, Raheem Sterling, was racially abused at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in 2018, he stated this was a result of some sections of the media helping to “fuel racism” with their portrayal of young black footballers.

Sterling has often been thrust under an intense media spotlight for a plethora of non-issues – from being ‘caught’ shopping at Poundland, to the “blinging” house he bought for his mother, up until just before the last World Cup when he was criticised for having a tattoo of a gun on his calf as it was said to glamorise guns and gang violence.

If say, a young white player, was found shopping at Poundland, buying his mum a house or having a dodgy tattoo, would these non-stories have made headlines?

It’s said that in the United Kingdom we do not witness the same extent of racism in football as other European nations. Recently in Portugal, FC Porto striker Moussa Marega was the subject of widespread racist abuse at a match that was so intense, Marega walked off the pitch in protest. Meanwhile in Italy, racism has been defended by supporters’ groups and even owners of clubs in what some have described as a culture war.

Although we’ve not seen players leaving the pitch in protest on our shores, nor do supporter groups and club owners defend racism in the UK, racism makes its way into the mainstream through other routes.

These routes are complex, often disputed and potentially incendiary, but football appears to have much deeper and more ingrained problems with racial prejudice than we readily acknowledge. 

More prominent and subtler biases are found in wishy-washy articles and inappropriate, outdated dialogue. Yet this form is equally destructive and in turn creates a culture where irrational distaste becomes increasingly acceptable and can lead to rises in racist incidents – as seen with Ian Wright on Twitter and Raheem Sterling at Chelsea.

Last season, racist football incidents saw a sharp 50% increase, with 150 reported to police. In response to these figures, a spokesperson for football equality and inclusion organisation, Kick It Out, stated: “Racism is both a football and societal issue, and it is clear that we are living in a climate of rising hatred and tribalism across the world.”

This is worrying. Although the Premier League and Football Association (FA) can point to their ever-increasing £270,000 per annum funding of Kick It Out, their No Room for Racism campaign and the introduction of the BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) Participants’ Advisory Group, the current landscape suggests more needs to be done.

John Barnes, an iconic figure in the fight against racism in English Football

While these campaigns all play a significant part in the fight to eradicate racism from football, they are less effective in nipping prejudice in the bud. Calling out subtler racist narratives is essential if this is to be achieved. However, this is easier said than done. Actively boycotting newspapers sounds like a simple solution, but has Orwellian undertones and can be seen as an attack on free speech.

Change must come through education. In spite of complications and negative statistics, the last couple of weeks have been encouraging and we have seen excellent progress for the beginnings of a cultural shift.

The tragic and racist killing of George Floyd has fuelled the fire for worldwide awareness of black issues. Black Lives Matter rallies have transcended borders, and we have even seen support from the Premier League with footballers posting on social media, taking a knee in solidarity and wearing “Black Lives Matter” on the backs of their shirts.

In turn of these events, Ian Wright has stated he is “very optimistic about the future” but “can’t stress enough how important it is for the momentum to not be lost”. 

The growing momentum and work currently being put in place is essential in creating an ethos for future generations to understand, call out and ultimately show racism the red card.

Click here for more of our latest articles or visit our homepage to find out about The Catenaccio.

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British Asians in football: the struggle for inclusion

Choudhury Leicester
Choudhury Leicester

Six years have passed since the Football Association declared its intent of tackling a social ill that has plagued the game for decades. The FA’s grandeur plans to drastically increase the number of South Asian players and coaches within the national sport have fallen woefully short.

The trail-blazing South Asian icons of the sport from the 50s and 60s such as Roy Smith or Ricky Heppolette can no longer be found in the highest echelons of English football today. As little as 0.3% of the 3,000 British professional footballers are of Asian heritage, despite Asians making up around 8% of the UK population. By the end of the 2018/2019 season, only four British footballers of South Asian descent had played in the Premier League – Neil Taylor, Michael Chopra, Hamza Choudhury and Zesh Rehman.

Recent statistics for the participation and representation from within the British Asian community protrude further than to merely amount to a ‘cause for concern’. Indeed, accusations of institutional racism levelled at English football could not be written off with any degree of certainty. This is a damning indictment for a game that is held dear by such a multicultural fanbase.

But how can this disparity be accounted for? And ultimately, where does responsibility reside in this social predicament?

Popular myths shrouded in a prejudicial undertone that Asians are only interested in cricket or hockey and common falsehoods regarding cultural differences have been dispelled. Research unambiguously demonstrates the prominence of football as an important subculture among South Asian communities.

 A survey conducted by Manchester University found that 60% of British Bangladeshi males regularly participated in football, compared to only 47% of white British males. Daniel Burdsey, a prominent scholar on the issue concluded that “football is an extremely popular and socially significant activity for an increasing number of young British Asian men”.

Figures as such serve to demonstrate the issue at play. If British Asian communities de-prioritised football then any investigation into their lack of representation would be futile. Yet, the fact remains that British Asians have an insatiable appetite for football, but are excluded from the game at all levels.

Former Tottenham Hotspur and England Youth team coach, Taff Rahman, has argued that the lack of Asian role models is a key factor in the under-representation. The coach who is himself of Bangladeshi heritage stated, “there aren’t many British-born South Asian (BSA) coaches in the professional game, especially those with long-term industry knowledge, so BSA youngsters have not really had any prominent figures to look up to … there is nobody at the moment who can be that beacon of light”.

Taff Rahman
Former England and Spurs Coach, Taff Rahman

This sentiment has been echoed in existing literature surrounding the subject. John Hoberman notes that ‘many black children grow up assuming that they were simply born with athletic ability, and some coaches encourage them in this belief’. Conversely, young British Asians may harbour a ‘lack of confidence’ or adopt a defeatist approach as very few pioneers have participated at the highest level. With such a sparsity in role models at the elite level of the game, there remains little scope to challenge the status quo and inspire younger generations. This issue is one that needs addressing by the FA, but only serves to reaffirm the original premise that Asian’s are excluded from the game.

More insidious explanations for the lack of Asian representation in the sport have been cited. Daniel Kilvington believes that covertly racist practises in the talent identification process continue to overlook promising British Asian players. Moreover, white scouts often biologically stereotype players of South Asian descent as inferior and therefore ‘all-Asian’ football clubs and leagues are rarely visited by gatekeepers. The 2018 British Sociological Association conference in Newcastle reaffirmed the prejudice towards Asian players finding that scouts ‘thought they were only interested in non-contact sports such as cricket or were physically weaker’.

The testimony of many British Asian players stands to support the hypothesis that they are systematically overlooked. One British Pakistani amateur player stated, ‘I’ve never seen a scout watch a match here in 18 years’, whilst another grassroots player stated that ‘football is institutionally racist towards South Asian players’ and needs to ‘do a lot more to tackle the problem’.

The under-representation of Asian players is just one case in point suggesting that racism is rearing its ugly head within English football again. The senseless abuse Raheem Sterling endured at Stamford Bridge in 2018 alongside racist gestures directed towards Fred during the Manchester derby begin to illustrate the magnitude of the issue. Football must do all it can to ensure it does not revert back to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.

There is hope for a better future. The absence of role models continues to hamper the development of British Asian players but there is evidence to suggest the tide is turning.

After years of deliberation, the FA has introduced the latest of its measures to address the lack of representation and inspire the next generation of British Asians into the game.  The five-step programme will focus on the importance of role models and raise awareness of the Asian ‘success stories’ in English football.

Further to this, the FA has released a short film featuring a number of BSA figures within the game such as Charlton Athletic Women’s manager Riteesh Mishra, to demonstrate that there is a path to success for those of Asian heritage.

Baljhit Rihal, Founder of The Asian Football Awards has welcomed the move stating, ‘it’s good to see that the FA has made an effort with this plan. They have been engaging with the Asian community over the past year and I’m glad that some quality time has been spent in devising this much needed initiative’.

It is high time that the British Asian voice is heard within our national sport. The neglect that the BSA community has felt within English football may well reflect a wider societal issue but this does little to diminish the FA’s responsibility in the matter. Whilst progress has been made, it is paramount to ensure that plans aren’t just a tick-box exercise to appease a community which has been systematically excluded from football for decades.

Click here for more of our latest articles or visit our homepage to find out about The Catenaccio.

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The Arabian peninsula to the North East of England: a story of sporting immorality

Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The prospective Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is a story that lays bare the corruption, inequality and general moral vacuum that is the world of high level international sporting business. 

Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, wants to buy Newcastle United in a £300m deal dominated by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. This is sportswashing. Saudi Arabia intend to use Newcastle United, a well-supported, widely liked Premier League football club, to improve their public reputation. 

The outrageousness of this situation is unparalleled. Bin Salman is not a bored billionaire. This is a man with blood on his hands and the sovereign wealth of a nation behind him: the largest economy in the Middle East and the eighteenth largest in the world. 

Mohammed Bin Salman runs a theocratic dictatorship that murdered and dismembered a New York Times journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in October 2018. The CIA and UN have confirmed that the Crown Prince personally ordered this murder.

For a moment, forget the problematic fact that a country essentially wants to own a football club. Forget that this is comparable to the Netherlands, or Mexico, or Turkey owning Norwich or Sunderland. Or perhaps Boris Johnson announcing plans to buy Atletico Madrid. 

Because it is not comparable. Saudi Arabia is responsible for numerous well documented human rights abuses. Until 2017, women were not allowed to drive. Homosexuality is punishable by flogging. The country averages around 150 executions annually. The kafala system employed in Saudi Arabia directly contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.     

‘I would love to see it happen and I’d love to be part of it,’ Steve Bruce, the Newcastle United manager told Sky Sports. ‘If it’s good for Newcastle and the club are going to try and compete with these [top] teams, to be part of it would be great. If it happens, I’d be delighted.’

Bruce’s comments lay bare the fundamental issue with this deal: it aligns the interests of a brutal dictatorship with those of a football club, its employees and its fans. 

Supporting Newcastle United becomes, in the Saudi plans, covert support for their regime. The club itself becomes the vehicle of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. As the case of Manchester City has proved, some of this support is often not particularly covert either. 

Such is the ridiculously tribal nature of football; it is not uncommon to find City fans take to social media to justify the human rights record of their owners. Indeed, whilst it must be noted that Saudi misinformation campaigns on social media are highly advanced, the reaction of some Newcastle fans online to journalists such as Miguel Delaney exposing this story has been derisory and dismissive.   

Newcastle United ground
St James’ Park, Newcastle

For Newcastle fans, it truly is out of the Michael-Ashley-funded-frying-pan and into the fires of Saudi dictatorship. It is an unenviable position. Amnesty International recently concluded that Saudi Arabia intended to use the ‘glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral.’ Likewise, the Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using football ‘as a PR tool to distract from its abysmal human rights record.’

Many have pointed out that Saudi Arabia has invested in multiple successful international businesses without such an uproar, and that a member of the Saudi ruling family enjoys total ownership of Sheffield United. Many have also pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of the British government, which pays continual lip service to Human Rights having spent decades selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. 

According to Campaign Against Arms Trade, the London based BAE Systems sold £15bn worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia between 2015 to 2019. Such weaponry has been used in the Saudi war against Yemen, one of the worlds worst humanitarian crises. In June last year the court of appeal suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing ‘historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law.’ The UK government is currently working to overhaul this judgement.  

In the face of such hypocrisy, many Newcastle fans have understandably asked: why should we not be able deal with these people when our own government can?     

Sport must be better. We have a right to demand more. We have a right to hold people to some degree of moral decency. Where do we draw the line? Granted, the UK government has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, but that is a silly argument. Do we really want the UK government to be our moral benchmark? 

Those opposed to Saudi Arabia have welcomed WTO intervention in the deal over the Saudi streaming website beoutQ. The WTO has announced that the Saudis broke international law in support of the pirate TV and streaming service, which sought to undermine the Qatari network beIN sports. 

According to beIN sports managing director: ‘we have been warning of the very real commercial consequences of beoutQ’s theft of world sport and entertainment for almost two years now – yet the piracy continues with impunity every day and represents an existential threat to the economic model of the sports and entertainment industry.’

Such impunity seems set to end. Indeed, the connections to piracy may well mean that the Saudi consortium fail to pass the mandatory Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test. The Saudis and Qatar are currently embroiled in an ongoing diplomatic crisis: beoutQ appears to have been supported to consciously undermine beIN sports, which signed a three year TV deal with the Premier League worth £500m and due to expire in 2022. 

 Yousef al-Obaidly, the chief executive of beIN, wrote to the chairmen of Premier League clubs in April saying, ‘the potential acquirer of Newcastle United [has] caused huge damage to your club’s and the Premier League’s commercial revenues.’

Also, on the board of the Qatar-funded Paris Saint-Germain, Obaidly went on to add: ‘The legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward. When the Premier League season recommences in the coming months, all of the league’s broadcasters’ content will continue to be readily and illegally available via the IPTV streaming functionality on the beoutQ set-top-boxes which were sold in significant quantities in Saudi Arabia and the broader Mena [Middle East and North Africa] region.’  

2020 has been a strange and surreal year. If it is indeed a streaming controversy that stops a Saudi takeover, then the irony will only deepen. No, the Premier League will be forced to say, we don’t mind the murdering and the abuse of fundamental human rights, but that online streaming business you’re up to, that deprives us of revenue, so clear off. 

How disappointing that football can have allowed itself to get into such a state, but you would be brave to bet against the deal going through. Sportswashing is real and it is here to stay unless we do anything about it. 

Indeed, sixteen cross party peers and MPs have written to the government to express concern that the takeover is a vehicle to distract the world from Mohammed Bin Salman and his regime’s human rights record. They have urged the government to take an ‘active lead’ in preventing sportswashing. 

Ultimately, it is likely to be the government’s response that determines the outcome of this case. In a world run by money there appears to be precious little room for quibbles about morality. We can and must do more. Whether the UK government will have the backbone to do so appears questionable.    

Click here for more of our latest articles or visit our homepage to find out about The Catenaccio.

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The Ultimate Premier League Quiz

For decades, the quintessential British pub quiz has featured challenging questions on the sport we love most. From Shearer’s goal-scoring feats to Derby County’s record-breakingly poor season, the Premier League is ever-presently fixated under the quiz master’s spotlight.

The absence of English football during the last few months may well have caused severe withdrawal symptoms for some, but to what extent has it clouded our long-standing knowledge? Something we hold dear as a football-obsessed nation.

With this in mind, we have compiled an Ultimate Premier League Quiz to dust off any cob-webs before Project Restart later this month. We’ve left no stone unturned in rigorously putting your knowledge to the test.

Think you have what it takes? Try your luck with the 15 questions we’ve put together in our interactive quiz below…

How did you get on? Are you happy with your score or has our quiz left you watching Premier League Years on repeat? We’d love to hear how you did, so get in touch on our Twitter or Instagram Page.

Click here for more of our latest articles or visit our homepage to find out about The Catenaccio.

Coronavirus: how can football come home if nobody’s in?

Lower League Football Ground

The last time football succumbed to an international crisis was the Second World War. Now, 81-years later as coronavirus tears its way through the world economy, clubs up and down the English league system are feeling the effects.

The Premier League

In the Premier League, postponed matches, jeopardised sponsorship deals, and an estimated £750 million loss each in broadcaster money have all massively cut top-tier sides’ revenue.

Additionally, Premier League clubs owe £1.6 billion in outstanding debt from previous transfers. Usually transfer instalments are a controllable method of business, yet with revenue cut, concerns arise with the necessity of balancing budgets.

Amongst other complications, these issues have undoubtedly led to severe drops in financial sustainability.

However, Premier League sides are well poised to mitigate at least some of their losses through the fiscal might of billionaire owners, global fan bases and the increasing probability of Project Restart.

Despite this, back in April, many were outraged as Bournemouth, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich all took advantage of the government’s tax-payer funded furlough scheme, entitling some of their non-playing staff to 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 a month.

While Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth all eventually made U-turns on these decisions after what ended in a PR disaster, the damage was done.

It’s clear Premier League sides have necessary funds to fall back on in a crisis, without relying on tax-payer money. Last year Liverpool payed agent fees of £44 million, making a cool £42 million profit. Meanwhile, Tottenham continue to pay an annual player wage bill of £147.6 million.

Lower Leagues

We didn’t witness the same public outrage when clubs lower down the football food-chain, such as Crewe Alexandra in League Two, reached the same judgement in furloughing staff – and for good reason.

Football finance expert Kieran Maguire described the pandemic as taking lower league clubs “to their knees”. Maguire estimates the Championship alone has already lost a cumulative £650 million. Meanwhile, the 48 clubs that make up League One and Two are expecting combined losses of somewhere in the region of £50 million.

Perhaps the most catastrophic outcome of the pandemic for lower league sides is the looming reality of games being played behind closed doors until 2021.

While the Premier League’s Project Restart would generate as much as £340 million in broadcast refunds, the same cannot be said for sides at the bottom of the English football pyramid. For them, bums on seats make up to 80% of their revenue.

Non-League

The current situation has hit non-league clubs particularly hard.

Far removed from the glitz of the Premier League, footballers in this tier rely on modest salaries as their main income source. Yet with clubs suffering a revenue drought, where will non-league sides find themselves once football returns? If they survive, will reduced salary contract offers be worth accepting? Would players look to other, more financially sustainable professions, threatening non-league’s very existence?

Only time will answer the above questions. However, with fifth-tier side Barnet FC recently recording losses of £100,000 a month and consequently laying off around 60 staff members to reduce costs, non-league’s future is looking bleak.

Barnet Football Club's Ground
Barnet FC, Underhill Stadium. Barnet FC recently recorded losses of £100,000 a month.

Predictions of up to 10 football clubs going under in the coming weeks are therefore unsurprising, and suggestions that we’re currently witnessing the end of non-league football are becoming increasingly probable.

Grass-roots

There have also been comparable suggestions when it comes to the fate of the football ladder’s bottom rung – grass-roots.

The pandemic has hit grass-roots communities up and down the nation exponentially. Money amateur sides would usually get from training-session fees or fundraisers isn’t coming in as these events aren’t taking place, meaning clubs are struggling to afford annual pitch hire, league and council fees.

Additionally, local businesses who sponsor grass-roots clubs are losing money, while there’s also the prospect of councils selling pitches used by grass-roots communities in order to fund rescue packages – effectively making the game homeless.

The possibility of grass-roots’ decimation could potentially kick-start a player recruitment domino effect; starting at the bottom, working its way to the top.

If this happens, non-league, lower-league, and even Premier League clubs and academies would all fall victim, having a reliable stream of home-grown talent cut at the source.

Without grass-roots, a generation would be starved of the ingrained English football psyche. How can football come home if nobody’s there to answer the door?

Yet it would be our local communities that would suffer most. Alongside general health and wellbeing, grass-roots opportunities allow integral societal lessons, permitting young people to develop socially, learn life skills and foster talent.

Sunday League Pitch
Pitches are at risk of being sold by respective councils to fund care packages.

What’s to be done?

When both Bury and Bolton came close to liquidation last summer, fans were shocked that two historic clubs, pillars of their respective communities and homes of numerous people’s livelihoods could so helplessly cease to exist.

It is not a question of “if”, but of “when” clubs across the league tier-system will fall victim to similar circumstances.

The EFL has committed £50 million to clubs most in need, while in April, players and managers from across the football league accepted pay-cuts and saw players in League One and League Two on more than £30,000 a week defer 25% of their wages.

We may also see clubs up and down the football league system be creative and explore ways to re-generate match day revenue.

Danish Superliga leaders, FC Midtjylland, have revealed ingenious plans to welcome supporters back to their stadium by setting up a ‘drive-in’ experience where fans can watch games on a giant screen.

FC Midtjylland, MCH Arena
FC Midtjylland, MCH Arena. The club plans on installing an outside screen to welcome back fans to the stadium.

However, if football is to navigate these murky waters, guidance must come from above.

Last month, Culture, Media & Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £16m package to help Rugby League through its financial difficulties. If lower-league clubs finding themselves taken to their knees have any chances of surviving, a similar initiative sanctioned by either the government or the Premier league is vital – not just for football’s wellbeing, but also the nation’s.

Click here for more of our latest articles or visit our homepage to find out about The Catenaccio.

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Project Restart, the story so far: criticisms, challenges, logjam

Training pitch balls

Decisions are being made on resuming top-flight football. While France’s Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie have both been abandoned, the German Bundesliga has restarted.

Since the Premier League’s suspension on 13th March, lobbying efforts to allow football’s return have been well received by the government, with cabinet member Dominic Raab stating the return of sports would “lift the spirits of the nation”.

The Project

On 11th May the government approved the league’s continuation for any date after 1st June. The logistics of ‘Project Restart’ are currently being negotiated.

The scheme would commence on 12th June and see the remaining 92 league games and additional FA Cup fixtures played over an intensive seven-weekend period with two matches played mid-week in what some have described as a ‘football festival’, costing clubs £340 million in television revenue refunds.

These fixtures would be played behind closed doors at around ten neutral venues in an attempt to moderate the risk of fans congregating outside stadia. Project Restart would also include the use of 40,000 coronavirus testing kits in the effort to control the virus.

All Premier League clubs will return to training from 19th May and social distancing measures will remain essential with other precautions implemented where possible and necessary. For example, tackling will be banned while balls, corner flags, cones and even playing surfaces will be disinfected and players will be restricted to training groups of up to five.

Additional ongoing surveillance measures that include twice-weekly testing and a daily pre-training questionnaire and temperature check will also be implemented.

Similar plans are being considered for lower leagues.

Corona virus empty stadium

The Criticisms

Given the tight-time frame, the project’s viability has been questioned. Dependent on self-isolation measures, clubs could find it difficult preparing their teams in a short window, to then start playing multiple matches in a concentrated period. An increased risk of injury is a major concern amongst many clubs.

This project is facing a race against time. Top flight managers and captains have all raised concerns over the quick turnaround, and the 12th June start date is looking increasingly likely to be pushed back a week to 19th June. 

Most worrying however, and what forms the basis of opposition towards Project Restart are the moral issues at play – the increased risk for individuals to contract and spread the virus.

Some reports suggest a Premier League game needs anything of up to 500 personnel at a stadium, while lower down the Football League, suggestions of anything up to 180. The health threat posed has resulted in doctors from 20 top-flight sides contacting the Premier League with around 100 questions and issues to voice their concerns on returning to training and fixtures.

Premier League players have been advised to make their own decisions on the safety and fairness of resuming, with some making it clear they feel they’ve been put under ‘intolerable pressure’ to save the game from financial meltdown and finish the league.

It has been reported that Pep Guardiola, Frank Lampard, Nigel Pearson and Graham Potter all voiced their concerns on rushing back to games. Understandably, those involved are concerned for not only their own wellbeing, but also their families. 

While precautions have been made necessary for training, once games commence some will be impossible to implement.

The Challenges

Tensions are high after a third Brighton player in England and three FC Köln players in Germany all recently tested positive for coronavirus. In fact, Sky Sports reported one Premier League club owner believes the ubiquitous risk and intensified circumstances have made players reluctant to return to work, and there is now a “40 per cent” chance of the current campaign’s cancellation.

Burnley players turf moor

As the FA emphasised they would not sanction the season being voided, nor allow relegation to be scrapped, the option to determine the league null and void without both a winner or relegated teams and having a twenty-two-team-league next year for one season only has been ruled out.

Therefore, if the season is cancelled the only likely option would be to determine the final league standing via mathematical formula. This could result in a “summer of chaos” with relegated clubs suing the Premier League, likely on grounds of illegitimacy.

Certain aspects of Project Restart have also been challenged from within. At least two-thirds of clubs oppose the neutral venues directive, while the BBC reported some clubs towards the lower end of the division will accept the idea of neutral venues if the prospect of relegation is removed, their argument being the benefits players feel from playing at home.

Similarly, Watford chairman and chief executive, Scott Duxbury, stated playing at neutral venues would compromise the game’s fairness and sporting integrity. Others have pointed to the fact that many Premier League sides have large, state-wide followings. This could mean eager fans from across the nation could and would gather outside any stadium, neutral or not and regardless of geography, suggesting the irrelevance of the initial reasoning behind the neutral-grounds directive.

It is clear internal mutinies threaten the existence of the project. Directives require 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs to vote in favour. If logjam continues and clubs fail to get their act together to agree on key elements of Project Restart, English football faces missing UEFAs 25th May deadline regarding season completion or cancellation.

A timeline of what’s next is below:

  • Monday, 18 May: Next Premier League meeting
  • Monday, 18 May: Premier League players may return to initial group training under socially distancing protocols
  • 25 May: UEFA deadline for leagues to have finalised plan for restarting seasons
  • 1 June: Government date for possible return of elite sport behind closed doors in England
  • 12 June: Premier League aiming to return with first fixture

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