‘Unprecedented’ is a word that has been over-used in the last few months as the world has battled the COVID-19 pandemic but, while the cause of football’s shutdown is certainly something we have never seen before, it is not the first time that the game we love has had to take a pause because of global events.
However, it has previously taken a world war to stop football completely. The last time a season was stopped midway through followed the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. On that occasion, only three rounds of fixtures had taken place and it was a straightforward decision to abandon the season, thus expunging the results from the official record books including two hat-tricks in Albion’s last game before football was curtailed, one for the Baggies’ Eric Jones and another for Spurs’ Johnny Morrison in a 4-3 win for the Londoners at the Hawthorns.
This time around, it was a much more difficult situation with a season more than three-quarters completed and many sides close to promotion or relegation. While the maintenance of “sporting integrity” was deemed to be an important factor as the options for resuming the season were considered, it has ultimately been predominantly a financial decision as to whether each competition should resume.
Below the Football League, the FA took a very early and, in my opinion, hasty decision to end the season for steps 3-7 of the pyramid and expunge all results. While the financial constraints for clubs at the level would preclude them from playing games behind closed doors without a significant bail out from outside, it seemed unduly harsh on clubs such as South Shields who held a 12-point lead at the top of their division. The FA deemed the unweighted points-per-game (PPG) method of concluding the season unfair due to the disparity in the number of games played for clubs in some divisions.
It is somewhat ironic that it is exactly that solution that was agreed by the clubs in League One and Two, and will be put to Steps 1 and 2 of the pyramid in the next few days. Indeed, should either the Championship or Premier League need to be ended prematurely due to a “second wave”, the PPG calculation will be used to determine final positions.
It certainly would have seemed fairly to let the clubs in steps 3-7 the chance to vote on their preferred solution – why are their efforts to win promotion any less important than those at a higher level of football? Fewer people may care, but the feelings for those that do are just as strong, if not more so.
While the cost of staging games without fans was deemed financially unsustainable below the Championship, the cost of not staging games in the top two divisions was too great to bear. Not completing the season could have led to broadcasting revenue having to be repaid – while the financial prudence of Mark Jenkins would have kept Albion afloat, such a step would have been ruinous for some clubs, particularly in the Premier League where TV revenue makes up such a large proportion of clubs’ total income. That financial imperative meant that it was inevitable that the Premier League would restart if it was at all possible, and the numbers proved to be compelling enough in the second tier as well.
In what has been, in my opinion, a media largely focussed on highlighting and sensationalising the negative side of every bit of news, football and footballers have taken more than their fair share of criticism. From Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, calling out footballers for not immediately take a wage cut to help the NHS, to the widespread of criticism of the footballing authorities exploring how football might resume when safe, it was open season on our beloved game in the early days of the lockdown.
Whether or not you think that footballers at the top of the game do enough to help those less fortunate, it was certainly unfair to single them out while ignoring other equally highly paid individuals. Personally, I believe most Premier League footballers do significant charity work for which they seek no praise or publicity while many of those lower down the league are not highly paid and will have been as anxious as any of being able to pay the mortgage should their club no longer afford to pay them.
As for the plans to resume, they were doing nothing more that every other sensible business was doing at the same time, planning for the future. The media outcry was, to my eyes, ridiculous.
I was, however, particularly proud of my club. West Bromwich Albion were quick to confirm that they had no plans to furlough any of its staff, but sensibly left the option on the table for consideration should circumstances dictate, while Mark Jenkins announced that he would take 100% pay cut for the duration of the crisis. Furthermore, the club along with the WBA Former Players’ Society embarked on a programme of telephoning the elderly and vulnerable amongst its supporter base to ensure they were coping with the lockdown. Well done WBA!
As we moved through the crisis and the lockdown started to ease, the government changed tack and decided that football was a good thing for morale and gave the green light to Project Restart that saw the Premier League return on Wednesday evening. The very footballers that were vilified in March were seen as crucial to raise the country’s spirits two months later.
It didn’t take long for the usual football talking points to get going on Wednesday night as a bizarre failure of technology denied Sheffield United a victory at Villa Park, but our attention must now turn to the Baggies’ return to action.
On Saturday, it will be 105 days since Albion’s last competitive fixture at the Liberty Stadium on 7th March. That is the longest time between fixtures since the 2002 close season when the Baggies won promotion at the Hawthorns on 21st April and played their first Premier League fixture on 17th August at Old Trafford, a break of 118 days.
That period was marked by boardroom upheaval as Paul Thompson was ousted by Jeremy Peace. There have been no such problems in the last three months with the only anxiety caused by the possibility that Albion might be denied promotion by the season being voided.
That fear has thankfully receded and Slaven Bilić’s team now have the opportunity to secure a top two finish on the pitch, albeit not in front of their fans. But how will the players react to this unique situation?
Wednesday’s matches perhaps give a clue. Man City were as expected and Arsenal displayed the frailties common to their away trips to the big six while, in the other game, neither side really impressed and I’m sure Chris Wilder will have been disappointed with his team’s display irrespective of the disallowed goal. So, nothing really out of the ordinary suggesting, from an admittedly small sample size, that we shouldn’t expect too many surprises.
The lack of spectators means that it is the players themselves that need to self-motivate perhaps favouring teams with something real to play for. That could, of course, be to Albion’s benefit particularly in their games against midtable sides such as Blues, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby and QPR, although Blues may not consider themselves safe just yet despite the potential for a further points deduction for financial irregularities being removed last week.
However, different players may react in different ways. Some will inevitably feed off the atmosphere, and the lack of it could see them fail to play to their usual standard. If that is the case with one key player, it could affect a whole team.
The break has meant that Slav will have a fully fit squad to choose from giving him an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas and, with nine games in little more than a month, the ability to rotate will be extremely valuable.
Many pundits have suggested that form will be irrelevant when the league restarts as any momentum must surely have been lost. It’s difficult to argue with that, but it is perhaps more relevant for teams in poor form than those high on confidence; time enables the team to rebuild confidence on the training pitch. Teams in good form may lose momentum, but they could still retain confidence based on what they know the can produce.
I personally feel that the Albion squad will be full of confidence and so they should be. Few teams in the Championship can match them for quality and the lack of influence from the crowd should mean that quality should win through more consistently.
One thing that must surely be in Albion’s favour is the ability to make five substitutions. Bilić’s ability to make a positive impact on the game by his use of the bench is becoming legendary – Charlie Austin alone has scored six goals as a substitute and Slav’s subs have scored a total of 14 goals this season in all competitions.
I’m certainly excited to see the Baggies back in action even if it must be on television – the prospect of seeing Pereira and Diangana playing together again is tantalising given their form together before Christmas, and there is plenty of other attacking talent to back them up.
One of the most significant games for Albion will be over before they restart their season as Fulham host Brentford on Saturday lunchtime. A win for the hosts will put them just three points behind the Baggies, while the Bees could move to within a point of Fulham with a victory to give them an additional incentive for their game against Albion next Friday.
However, a Bees win would mean that Slav’s boys could open a nine point gap on the chasing back with a win over Blues. It could be a very decisive first weekend of the restart.
With Leeds not playing until Sunday, even a draw would see Albion move back to the top of the table. The title race is wide open with just a point between the top two and wouldn’t it be fitting for the Baggies to win the league in Brunty’s last season at the Hawthorns, just as they did in his first.
It will undoubtedly be strange, and we will hopefully never see anything like this again, but Albion can make this season memorable for something other than COVID-19.
They have the players, they have the manager and while they can’t be there in person, the fans will be right behind them. Come on you Baggies!!
Lead photo by Laurie Rampling