Premier League wage stand-off showing the very worst of football as angry players stand defiant against owners

Announcement of preferred 30% pay cut left players stunned by the failure to consult the Professional Footballers’s Association regarding the reduction, while plans to furlough staff at various clubs have come with terrible timing for the prolonged talks

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Correspondent
Tuesday 14 April 2020 07:35 BST
Premier League players launch PlayersTogether initiative during coronavirus crisis

The 20 Premier League captains were at first stunned, and then apoplectic. The mood has not changed much since, and could have significant repercussions.

When the Premier League issued a wide-ranging statement on 3 April that said they may ask the players for a 30 per cent wage cut or deferral, the assumption from many – and even some of the most prominent figures in the game – was that this had at least been run past the captains, or the Professional Footballers’s Association (PFA).

Key sources say this actually hadn’t been the case, and that the clubs actually talked themselves down from an initial figure of 40% in that Friday videoconference. The Premier League however maintains that all parties - including the PFA - had been kept abreast at all times, and that 40% was never on the table.

The wonder is how the players would have reacted to that. It was bad enough with 30 per cent. They went “ballistic”, in the words of one source. The same individual describes it as a “spectacular failure” in communication on the part of the Premier League clubs, which really “alienated” the players.

It could yet mean the various parties keep failing to strike an agreement on this issue for some time, and that it gets very ugly.

The picture isn’t all that good right now. A time of international crisis has seen the national sport descend into disagreement between millionaires and billionaires, over money.

It just looks like the worst of football, at the worst of times, summing up a supposed moral bankruptcy in the game.

The true picture is naturally more complicated than that, but thereby all the more difficult to sort out. The key difference is not financial status, and that between millionaire players and billionaire owners.

It is actually one of outlook and objective for this, that is not solely motivated by greed or self-interest or any of the other loaded words thrown around.

It really comes down to this. The players are perfectly willing to give up significant money, as they have made clear, but want it all to go to the National Health Service or other charitable funds.

The clubs say they badly need the money to stay within their businesses – in order to survive. This is the principal problem, that has so far not seen even the suggestion of a solution. Making the situation even harder is that, within those differences, there are the sort of decisions that could yet make a huge difference in so many other lives – above all whether club employees can be paid.

It is this that has seen the player pay issue sometimes unhelpfully rolled into that of staff going on furlough, that has thereby further irritated the captains.

To be fair, they should be under no illusions. The issue of regular staff pay is inherently connected to that of player pay, especially at clubs outside the big six, but also some within that group.

It’s also true that a series of missteps have fostered a worsening distrust, which is where this threatens to really get ugly.

The players were already annoyed at how Tottenham Hotspur’s plan to furlough staff prompted that entirely unhelpful comment from health secretary Matt Hancock. The understandable feeling was they were typically being made the most convenient of targets, in evident diversionary tactics. They were resentful they were being put under unfair pressure, and singled out.

Liverpool’s initial decision to avail of the furlough scheme only made this worse, especially given it came on the day the captains held a videoconference with the Premier League, but what really did the damage was that Friday statement.

Liverpool’s timing of their initial furlough decision angered the players (PA)

The captains were simply aghast it could be made without even consulting them. One source went on to say that, “of all the parties involved in this, the Premier League have been by far the least useful”.

It means the player view of the hierarchies remains as low as ever. They simply believe the clubs will “use any chance to screw them”, and that the billionaire owners have more than enough to just solve any issues by putting money back in. It’s also been pointed out that the clubs haven’t actually lost the hundreds of millions in broadcasting yet.

This is why the players want any cuts to be on their terms. They are currently completely hardline on this.

Many officials see this as hopelessly naive, however, but fear it may take the harsh reality of a Premier League club going into administration to snap them out of it.

One executive privately argues that outfits like Bournemouth and Watford just don’t have access to money like that, and badly need to adjust their economics now

While there is an acceptance that some of the wealthiest clubs – like Manchester United, like Manchester City, like Liverpool – should be able to weather whatever happens for some time, and thereby not expect cuts, that is very far from the case for most outside that core.

One executive privately argues that outfits like Bournemouth and Watford just don’t have access to money like that, and badly need to adjust their economics now. The primary problem is that most are break-even cash-flow businesses like airlines, who have had that flow of income stopped.

Games have stopped, which has cut off match-day income, and devastated commercial income, with so much uncertainty over the third pillar: TV.

Even if a deal is struck on broadcasting, the issue is that clubs are missing out on so much incremental revenue related to the other pillars that it’s creating a “massive financial black hole”.

To pick the most prominent example, clubs are worried that finance companies for season tickets won’t be there going forward, which could mean thousands not being renewed.

The same climate is likely to see businesses do away with non-essential expenditure, such as corporate boxes and premium seats. One big-six club has 40 boxes up for renewal this summer, and are increasingly concerned they won’t be taken up. There is then all the connected expenditure like money on food and restaurants, and force majeure clauses preventing sponsorship bonuses getting paid.

Even in the case of clubs like Tottenham, it will slow the moves with the NFL.

Tottenham’s NFL plans could slow down because of this crisis (PA)

“There are going to be huge shortfalls which simply can’t be made up,” one source says. “It is why they have to go back to the players, and why mere deferrals are meaningless. Player wages are the current biggest expense, but that was from the pre-coronavirus economics. It’s unsustainable now.”

It’s going to cause an upending of the structures of the game, as more and more prominent figures talk of “unprecedented” financial problems they couldn’t have foreseen, and that the current systems just aren’t able to cope with. It’s that bad. “The dominoes are falling.”

The expectation is thereby that the clubs will go as hardline as the players. That is even likelier to be the case given the hardline view of some in the game.

“This is why the whole issue of player deferral is a disgrace,” the same source says. “They and their agents don’t want to cut.

“Too many pundits are praising players when they’ve actually done very little. Remember, if a player donates £30,000, they write it off against tax, so it isn’t really costing them anything. But it’s great PR.

“Deferrals actually cost a player nothing. For a club, though, it’s just debt down the road. Players simply need to have their salaries cut.”

“This is just going to lead to many of those out of contract not getting renewed, and they won’t be able to get anything like their current money elsewhere… Players need a reality check.”

That reality check may well be a club going into administration.

The players, however, evidently aren’t the only people that require such a realignment. There badly needs to be some agreement between the side soon, some conciliatory gestures.

That’s how severe the situation is. That’s how far apart the sides are. That’s how ugly this could get.

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