If not seen already, thought this might be of interest, due to the speculation about Deeny and other Prem & Championship clubs
From The Athletic
What really happened inside English football's crisis talks
Other contributors: David Ornstein, Simon Hughes, Laurie Whitwell, Stuart James and Richard Sutcliffe
Perhaps it is indicative of the heightened tensions and crippling uncertainty gripping English football that the Premier League’s newly appointed chairman Gary Hoffman felt it necessary to make his bow this week.
Hoffman, a 59-year-old banker and also chair of Monzo bank, was not due to take up the reins at the Premier League until June 1. Yet, at a meeting on Wednesday of Premier League players, where captains or leading dressing room voices represented each club over a video call, Hoffman made his entrance.
As English football strived to restart, this week had been billed, in some quarters, as the week where we would start to find solutions across the sport. In short, it has been a Zoom bonanza.
In the Premier League, meetings played out between the league executives and the 20 clubs at boardroom level. Then came the summit between top-flight players, league directors and medical professionals. Then came the turn of the 20 Premier League managers.
In the EFL, the Championship clubs came together on Wednesday. League Two indicated its preference to abandon the campaign on Friday, while League One’s discussions, which began earlier the same day, continue. Finally, late on Friday afternoon, came a meeting between the League Managers’ Association and the 72 managers in charge of Football League clubs.
Wary of underlying motives across the leagues, whether it be the Premier League title, television money and relegation in the top-flight, to the naked pursuit of self-interests for the ups, downs and sustainability of clubs in the Football League, a consensus that suits every party is a pipe dream. The ambition, therefore, has been to edge towards best case scenarios. Yet at the end of another fraught week, nobody can be certain of their fate.
The Athletic has been following the conversations every step of the way, talking to the club executives, league officials, managers and players on the calls and can reveal:
Premier League managers and players remain divided over Project Restart, as they share concerns over the health of families and the vulnerability of BAME males to Covid-19.Frank Lampard, Jurgen Klopp, Nigel Pearson and Graham Potter were particularly vocal over their concerns around player welfare.Players messaged on WhatsApp in between questions to the Premier League as they looked for reassurances on a series of issues.As a Championship chairman warned, it is only “50-50” the season will play out and the league remains fraught with tension, as some coaches want tests recorded independently to avoid teams calling games off out of self-interest.In League One, leading clubs were on Friday night calling for an expanded eight-team play-off system to include former Premier League sides Sunderland and Ipswich.In League Two, clubs indicated a preference to promote Swindon as champions, along with Crewe and Plymouth but the ballot to spare Stevenage from relegation is set to be opposed by the Football Association and clubs in the Championship and League One.
In some cases, the outreach presented progress. Tiptoeing its way towards harmony, Premier League clubs and players are now, mostly, on board to begin stage one of a phased return to training over the next week. Yet these are baby steps.
This was, we should remember, a week where Newcastle United’s Danny Rose warned “football should not be spoken about until the numbers (of cases and deaths) have dropped massively”. Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling insisted he is not “scared” but “reserved and thinking what the worst outcome could be”. Watford’s Troy Deeney added: “If I feel that I am not looking after my family, I am not going to do it. What are they going to do? Take my money off me? I’ve been broke before so it doesn’t bother me.”
This remains a highly charged issue. The Premier League’s previous attempt to bring the players on board ended in calamity, as the league recommended wage cuts or deferrals up to 30 per cent across the board on one Friday afternoon in April, before players and the Professional Footballers’ Association hit back in no uncertain terms the next evening.
The meeting this past week, centred on bringing players on board with the safety protocols necessary for Project Restart, could not afford to go wrong. Enter Hoffman, who chaired the meeting and impressed players with an assured display. He fronted up a senior cast that also featured the Premier League chief executive Richard Masters, director of football Richard Garlick and medical advisor Mark Gillett.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, several Premier League executives privately made their dissatisfaction known over the perceived vacuum of leadership and organisation in the top-flight. Indeed, some clubs mooted the idea of outsourcing the strategic planning to one of the major consultancy firms.
The flip-side, however, is that over several decades now, Premier League clubs have orchestrated a league where the clubs call the shots and the long-serving chief executive Richard Scudamore struck the television deals.
In the absence of Scudamore, allied with the delayed start for the new chairman, the clubs, all beset by their own vested interests, squabbled their way into gridlock. The nostalgia for Scudamore, who retired in 2018, is a little misty-eyed; after all, he never needed to face down a global pandemic.
In Masters, the Premier League has a popular chief executive who served on an interim basis for over a year, but his authority has inevitably been undermined to some by an interview process that saw two previous picks not even start the job after being hand-picked by the recruitment team. Despite the grumbling in briefings to journalists, the clubs have, at times, praised the Premier League in meetings.
Seeking to bring the players on board this week, it is little wonder Hoffman took his place, also joined by Professor James Calder, an orthopaedic surgeon and independent chair of the chief medical officer’s consultancy group. In addition, officials invited the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, widely considered to be one of the most effective communicators during this period, to answer the concerns of players.
Inside the meeting, questions came thick and fast. Some clubs had as many as three representatives in the virtual room. West Ham’s Mark Noble and Watford’s Deeney were vocal. Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson impressed, while Brighton’s Glenn Murray shared worries he then repeated on Sky Sports the following morning.
Yet across the board, players raised concerns. Indeed, some senior players at clubs who have most to gain are wondering why the season must press ahead so quickly. During the meeting, players exchanged messages on their WhatsApp group, preparing the next line of enquiry to ensure a thorough examination.
The enquiries veered from absurd to extremely serious. Players wanted to understand the headlines that suggested players must turn their faces away when tackling opponents in training sessions. Footballers spoke up on behalf of minority groups, after statistics revealed that BAME males are 4.2 times more likely to die of coronavirus than their white counterparts. This topic, under investigation from the government, was the one issue Van-Tam admitted he could not provide reassurance on at this stage.
Concern was also relayed over underlying conditions, such as asthma, as well as heart conditions. Players also worry for their relatives. Some players have pregnant wives and household relatives suffering from health conditions, such as diabetes. At least one player shares a home with a relative in remission from cancer.
In Friday’s newspapers, Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham explained he lives with his parents and siblings, while his father is asthmatic. Abraham said: “My dad has asthma, so if I was to return to the Premier League and, God forbid, I do catch this disease and bring it home it’s the worst thing possible. The last thing I need is to catch the virus myself or be in contact with anyone with the virus.”
Chelsea, as a club, are not one of those sides eager to curtail the season and Abraham’s words speak for individual concerns shared in a number of dressing rooms, regardless of the permutations for clubs involved.
While a minority of players seek further reassurances, the vast majority are believed to now be comfortable with the scheduled return to individual training this coming week. At some clubs, testing is well under way, as Tottenham’s Harry Kane revealed his entire squad tested negative to Covid-19 this week. Sheffield United chief executive Stephen Bettis said this week: “There isn’t anyone who isn’t desperate to get back and play football.” At their training ground, cars are parked further away from each other than usual and their player Enda Stevens compared the layout to “a maze” where “everything, and I mean everything, is controlled.”
Kane, training on Friday, said this week that the squad had tested negative (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
There is a “split”, according to several sources, between players but the intention of the Premier League this week was always to start a process of consent, introducing the social distancing measures for phase one. Greater challenges lay ahead. At certain clubs, there has been confusion. One set of players was told to return for training on a certain date, only to then be informed it was cancelled. At other clubs, negotiations are not only taking place over returning to play but also on the topic of wage deferrals.
Sheffield United’s squad agreed a six-month deferral but manager Chris Wilder was said to be privately unhappy when his players’ displeasure leaked into newspapers. Another club is facing an ultimatum from players who want a commitment that any deferred wages will be immediately repaid in the event the club makes a summer signing.
One Premier League player, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We still don’t have the answers for how to move on to the next phase. This week has been optimistic but there are still a lot of hurdles before we get back fully.”
There is, at least, a sense of respect within dressing rooms. The player explained: “Everyone that I’ve spoken to has been really understanding. If someone in their team doesn’t want to return, they completely understand. There would be no grudges. It depends on where you are in your career, really. I’d have absolutely no issue voicing my concerns if I felt I needed to do that. Perhaps when I was younger I wouldn’t have done. But when I was younger I didn’t have children. I’m at a different stage of my life now. It’s not solely about my career, I have other things that are important.”
As Premier League managers received their briefings from officials, coaches asserted their own views. There is, once again, a split and it is by no means as simple as a divide between those whose clubs stand to gain by returning to work.
The Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho has been openly robust in his opinion, publicly revealing he is “desperate” to return to play as soon as possible. In the meeting, rival coaches were treated to a forthright riposte from Mourinho. The Portuguese coach launched an passionate defence of the many sectors linked to the football industry who may stand to lose out if the sport does not return rapidly and in a strong fashion.
At the end of the call, as other managers began to log off, Mourinho told his rivals: “If you don’t want to play, stay at home and watch the Bundesliga!”. In some quarters, this was interpreted as crass, while others viewed it more light-heartedly. Not all managers, however, see the situation as simply as Mourinho.
During conversations in recent days, it has emerged that there is a significant division between top-flight coaches. One coach confided that he felt a breakdown of trust has developed between the Premier League and its coaches. Some feel that the present process is to inform coaches, rather than truly develop agreements. There was no opportunity in these meetings for managers to vote on any issues and those coaches who are uncomfortable with the proposals worry that the Premier League will now stop at nothing to get Project Restart over the line. The Premier League has always insisted it will do everything within its power to reduce risk.
Some, therefore, see the situation in straight lines and others are applying shades of grey. “Most managers are now resigned to ‘sporting casualties’ of the pandemic”, explains one source. “But we must avoid human casualties.” On Monday, Premier League clubs will vote to approve the medical protocols.
Chelsea boss Frank Lampard has spoken publicly about his concern over footballers receiving tests before frontline health workers. Behind-the-scenes, Lampard was described as putting the health and safety of his players to the forefront of the agenda during an eloquent address in the meeting. Considering Liverpool’s title may rest on a restart, their manager Jurgen Klopp spoke, according to several sources, with a “sense of humility and perspective.” In the meeting, coaches raised once more the statistics surrounding BAME players. Watford’s Nigel Pearson and Brighton’s Graham Potter also outlined significant concerns.
There are, however, competitive instincts taking over. The Premier League has been keen to push the sense that managers are broadly in agreement but it is understood rancour has developed between different coaches. Some suspect that rival clubs may have breached guidance on the return to training schedule, which may give a physical advantage if some clubs are ahead of the game.
Several, meanwhile, are uncomfortable with the timeframe around the mini pre-season, a number would prefer a five-to-six week training schedule before returning, whereas the proposed training schedule of restarting fixtures on June 12 is perceived by many to leave players short of full match fitness.
The June 12 timetable has been guided by the government but there is also a suspicion within certain clubs that the Premier League does not want to give a window of opportunity to Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A, as both countries are due to resume that weekend.
Yet as coaches face up to possibly only a fortnight of full contact training, there is, now, an increasing momentum behind both the Premier League and the Championship to push back any return a further seven days to the weekend of June 19.
Below the top-flight, the agitation is more dramatic as decisions edge closer. The Championship held a meeting on Wednesday, where clubs committed to attempting to finish the campaign by playing all remaining league games and play-off fixtures.
Group training is not permitted to restart until May 25, as testing has not commenced, which leads most clubs to now believe any restart will be pushed back to June 19 at the earliest. Some coaching teams, particularly Leeds, have been using the period to get ahead during in-depth analysis sessions. Marcelo Bielsa, for example, has tasked his backroom staff with studying every goal scored from a set-piece situation in Europe’s top five leagues (plus the Championship) this season and identifying the most efficient zones for set-piece takers to target.
Back out on the field, coaches and medical teams believe the extra week, as a minimum, is a necessity as a duty of care to players and their fitness. Yet this is where much of the agreement ends in the second tier.
Mistrust is brewing. One Championship manager told The Athletic he wanted tests to be submitted centrally to avoid abuse by struggling teams. “Like they do drug testing, do it externally by a governing body,” he said. “If it’s down to clubs individually, it’s easy to be abused. You can imagine: 12 players positive, match abandoned.”
Another backroom staff member in the Championship argued any clubs who suffer a significant number of positive cases should be forced to play the game with youth team players. He said: “If you follow the training protocols, it is impossible to have a high number at the same time, as you ought to identifying cases and quarantine them, so any club that suffers this would be unprofessional.”
Towards the foot of the division, several clubs would still be happy to pack in the season now. Concerns remain over the logistics and costings of completing the season under social distancing guidelines. “There’s a 50-50 chance we finish the season,” said one Championship chairman on Friday night. “A number of clubs who are safe would like to draw a line under it.” In the meeting on Wednesday, Hull City, one place above the drop zone and without a win in their previous 11 Championship games, were the most vocal to curtail the season now. Hull are one of five clubs separated by three points above 22nd-placed Charlton.
Yet a chairman at a different club speculated that in a vote, many more clubs would vote to stop play than they are letting on during the meetings. Several clubs this week told The Athletic they are not confident the Championship season will be played out, although one source speculated that games will be televised every day if the Championship resumes.
There is a clear desire from the top and EFL chairman Rick Parry to play on. Parry, like several clubs, is conscious that broadcasters may demand significant rebates in television money, while clubs already face shortfalls as they play matches behind-closed-doors and sponsors are requesting refunds. Other clubs argue that the cost of extending contracts by a couple of months in the event of a restart, estimated to be in excess of £500,000 by some clubs, may usurp this in any case.
As one league source concluded: “When the music stops, somebody is going to be unhappy.”
When English football is commented upon elsewhere in Europe, continental clubs often cite the depth of leagues and historic clubs as the country’s greatest footballing strength. In a pandemic, however, the sheer mass of clubs and games has morphed into a source of anxiety.
One Championship chairman said: “None of us want to say it, but the truth is it’s been like this (a mess financially) for years and years and years, but we still go on, and I hope it always will go on. But we can’t sustain 92 clubs at a professional level, really. I think most of us know that.”
The Athletic revealed last week that League One and League Two were on the brink of abandonment as clubs faced up to infeasibility of persisting behind closed doors below the second tier. Yet the third tier of English football is home to clubs with wealthy backers and famous names, such as Portsmouth, Peterborough and Sunderland, all of whom potentially stood to face significant damage if a points-per-game model was applied to promotion. Those three sides are among six sides who are separated by a single point between 3rd place and 8th place in League One.
On Thursday evening, the Peterborough chairman Darragh MacAnthony released a statement: “I have been asked to relay this message on behalf of Oxford United, Fleetwood Town, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Peterborough United. We as a collective are united in our goal to finish this season. We have no desire for voiding the season, PPG scenario’s/letting a computer decide our footballing fate. For our fans/staff & for the integrity of our sport we are all looking forward to completing our pending fixtures/season under guidance from the EFL at a time it is deemed safe to do so.”
The League One meeting on Friday morning was, unsurprisingly, less harmonious. According to several sources, the league is now split down the middle between teams who do not wish to play on and those who have the carrot of promotion. The angst is exacerbated by the fear that League One may not resume until a vaccine is found and, as such, some very large clubs may find themselves in the wilderness.
Sunderland’s chief executive Jim Rodwell was a particularly prominent voice and in a later meeting of League One and Two managers, the prospect of expanded play-offs was mooted. The EFL is opposed to any play-offs in League One that would involve the top two, Rotherham and Coventry, who should be promoted but below that, “innovative” solutions are under consideration.
As such, a possible eight team play-off down to Ipswich in tenth place may be proposed, but some clubs in League One still believe the logistics involved in any play-offs may be beyond reasonable costs. One manager said: “How, for example, would Sunderland deal with an away game at Portsmouth? Will they need to book out a hotel for two weeks to quarantine it and ensure it is safe? Or will they be sleeping in tents? Or will it be neutral grounds?”
The EFL is also wary that it would then set a precedent to be applied to the Championship and League Two. One of the CEO’s minded to continue League One said: “There are two reasons why clubs want to keep playing: because they’ve got something to play for and for money, and sometimes it’s both. For the bigger clubs in League One, the costs of cancelling the season are probably greater than the costs of continuing, so the financial argument that some clubs are using doesn’t apply. Reimbursing our season-ticket holders or Sky asking for some money back would cost us a lot more than the tests.”
In both League One and League Two, some clubs are seeking greater direction from above. Ian Holloway, the Grimsby manager, was particularly vocal in a manager’s meeting on Friday afternoon, railing against a perceived lack of leadership. Another Football League manager countered afterwards: “When times are good, these same clubs rarely want to be told what to do, do they?”
Rival clubs are also concerned that Fleetwood CEO Steve Curwood, also an EFL director, has had a louder voice in discussions due to his elevated status with the league.
In League Two, at least, came a hint of clarity as one source came away and described “the first example of unanimity” of this entire period. It is understood that Bradford and Port Vale, just outside the play-off places, now accept they will miss out and the clubs were informed of £140,000 testing costs should the division proceed.
The clubs therefore agreed to end the season, respect Swindon, Crewe and Plymouth for automatic promotion and award play-off positions to the clubs in those positions. It had been anticipated that League Two would be decided by weighted home-and-away under a points-per-game model but the board instead opted for straight points-per-game.
“If you do it for home and away, would you not have to take into account the strength of opposition played?” asked one source. Some clubs, including Tranmere in the relegation zone of League One (three points adrift with a game in hand), had even mooted whether recent form should be taken into account.
At the bottom of the league pyramid, however, Stevenage received a 20-4 vote in favour of not being relegated. Some clubs argued that if sporting principles are respected at the top of the league, they should also be applied at the bottom. This, however, like every decision on the day, was only an indicative vote and every call will require a majority of Football League clubs across the three divisions to approve it, in addition to Football Association ratification.
The FA has already insisted that promotion and relegation must take place, while the EFL believes that the Championship would also vote against blocking relegation from the Football League as it could provide a precedent for the Premier League to eliminate relegation from the top flight.
Six Championship clubs are understood to have registered their concern with the Football League. The situation at the bottom of League Two could, however, yet spare Stevenage as it is anticipated that Macclesfield, three points clear having played an extra game, may be deducted points. As such, Barrow, the league leaders in the National League, are this weekend confident of promotion.
As with the top of the tree, however, English football’s make-or-break week has provided more questions than answers.