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Compromise is crucial if football is to emerge in good health


Wilfried Zaha. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Wilfried Zaha. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

Wilfried Zaha. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

How will history remember those who went first when it came to redundancies or pay-cuts? Are Barnet, of the National League, and the Scottish Premiership club Heart of Midlothian, to be the Britannia Hotels of British football or simply the first to crumple in a long line of famous names no longer able to afford to pay staff or honour the contracts of their players?

Tony Kleanthous, Barnet's chairman, sacked all non-playing employees on Tuesday. Hearts are offering their players a 50 per cent pay-cut or contract release, which for many will be like a choice between a deal at Frying Pan United or another at FC Fire. In the midst of the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the picture changes rapidly. The question coming along the track for football - players, their agents, club executives and owners - is the same facing every business. Where will those savings be made?

The greatest expense for all professional clubs is in the salaries of playing staff and manager. The relationship between footballers, their salaries and those who pay to watch the game is problematic, even at the times humanity is not contemplating spiralling death tolls and economic meltdown. Now it feels like it could be the stage of the final bloody battle to preserve the life of clubs unable to play any football for the foreseeable.

Players and their agents will all know what is coming if the Premier League cannot get the show back on the road any time soon. It is already being discussed for county cricketers and in the Premiership, rugby's top flight, while athletes in sports much further down the list of wealth are seeing their earnings or sponsorship deals wiped out. How football manages a pay-cut, if it comes to that, will be critical to how the game survives, and also its legacy when at last it returns.

Plans are already taking shape in the English Football League, where its £50m rescue package has bought some time but by no means an escape from the financial nightmare. There are plans to cap Championship wages at £6,000 per week in a league where some earn in excess of £35,000 and the stakes for clubs gambling big on promotion are among the highest in sport. One division above, there are no wage-cut plans yet, or none that are being openly discussed as a collective, but nothing is off the table.

Challenging players and agents to argue their basic human right to be earning Premier League money in a part-nationalised economy will be the clubs' most powerful card to play. Indeed, one might say that it is the only card they have to play. Elite football contracts are cast-iron in guarantees in favour of the player, even relative to the rest of Europe. In Germany, an injured player will have six months out of action on full pay until he will have to apply to his insurer - if he has one - to make up the shortfall on a pay-cut that is written into the contract. In the Premier League, the equivalent period is 18 months.

Which is to say that no one, bar the very few with career-threatening injuries, misses out on a penny of the fixed-term contracts they agree with their employers. As with agents' fees, these are business debts which can be enforced in law. Perhaps none of this will ever be tested if clubs can make their return to action behind closed doors, tentatively and informally scheduled currently for June 1.

In the past, this would have been a negotiation played out between the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association, and its members.

It is the PFA which would have wielded the collective bargaining power of an almighty union capable of stopping the resumption of the game in its tracks and casting the clubs as the greedy party. But the PFA's profile has slipped in recent years with that of its chief executive Gordon Taylor, self-isolating since the attempt in February last year by his own organisation to unseat him.

It would be hard to see the single figure who could unify the less well-paid lower-league players and the big-earning star names, as Taylor has done in past disputes. That individual would have to be the face of a collective of millionaires insisting the noughts at the end of their salaries were reinstated as well as every journeyman pro struggling to pay the mortgage.

One imagines a patchwork of deals and provisos hammered out at clubs between individual players and their agents.

It is notable that many players have already funded their own contributions to the crisis. From Wilfried Zaha making available to NHS staff his portfolio of 50 rental homes, to Marcus Rashford supporting Manchester food banks, and the Liverpool squad doing the same in their city. You would be hard-pressed to find a Premier League footballer unprepared to acknowledge his good fortune at playing in an era when even the third-choice goalkeeper can afford to live like a member of the landed gentry.

Their contracts are their lives and historically they have defended them like a one-goal lead away from home in the last five minutes.

The hard-earned wisdom is that the clubs will always act in their best interests and by giving an inch, all one does is invite exploitation.

Neither side will particularly trust the other and it would not take much to see it descending into the most rancorous of battles, but if the game is to continue they will have to seek compromise.