Gary Neville's five points illustrate Premier League's poor response

Gary Neville’s five points illustrate perfectly Premier League’s poor handling of coronavirus crisis… from trying to play on to Liverpool putting staff on furlough, the response has been a DISASTER

  • Gary Neville believes Premier League’s coronavirus response has been ‘terrible’
  • Former defender listed five areas where the league has mishandled the crisis
  • Neville believes matches shouldn’t have been played over weekend of March 7-9
  • He describes decision of five clubs to furlough staff as a ‘PR disaster’
  • Players are also unwilling to take pay cuts on the Premier League’s terms 
  • And £125m pledged to lower leagues is just an advance and not new money  

Gary Neville has taken aim at the Premier League and their handling of the coronavirus crisis, describing it as ‘terrible’.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, the former England and Manchester United defender turned television pundit, listed five calamitous decisions the Premier League has made in recent weeks.

Premier League executives met with the PFA, LMA and EFL on Friday before issuing a lengthy statement that has since caused a storm of controversy.

Gary Neville has slammed the Premier League’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Neville listed five areas where the Premier League has handled the Covid-19 crisis ‘terribly’

In a second tweet, Neville said a ‘re-alignment’ of the game would be welcome  

It confirmed that the 2019-20 season would not resume at the beginning of May, as was hoped, and would only return ‘when it is safe and appropriate to do so.’

Following criticism of highly paid footballers retaining their salaries when non-playing staff at a number of top-flight clubs were handed wage cuts or were furloughed, the Premier League clubs promised to consult players over a 30 per cent wage reduction or a deferral.

The statement also announced the league was to award £125million to the EFL and the National League to help clubs down the pyramid ease financial difficulties.

The Premier League also pledged £20m to support the NHS as well as ‘communities, families and vulnerable groups.’

But, as Neville points out in his tweet, subsequent events have proven almost all of this to be misjudged. We analyse each of Neville’s five points in turn and what he means.

Slow to lockdown/tried one last weekend of games

The last Premier League fixture to be played was Leicester City’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa on Monday March 9, the concluding fixture of the 29th matchday.

The first game to be postponed was Manchester City’s home fixture against Arsenal scheduled for the Wednesday evening (March 11) after a number of Arsenal players went into self-isolation after manager Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with the illness.

Following the news that Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi had also contracted the virus, the decision to suspend the Premier League and EFL was taken on Friday March 13.

Match between Leicester City and Aston Villa on March 9 was the last before the shutdown

Decision to suspend the Premier League came after Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta got coronavirus

Neville seems to suggest that the matches played over the weekend of March 7-9 should not have been played.

His point is that the first coronavirus cases – and deaths – in the UK had already occurred at this point and the Premier League should have reacted quicker and shut football down sooner to protect players and crowds.

Scientific evidence in Europe has suggested that the Champions League game between Atalanta and Valencia on February 19 significantly helped spread the virus between those in attendance, exacerbating the situation in northern Italy. 

On March 5, there were 30 new cases in the UK and the first death as a result of the virus. There were 48 more positive cases on March 6, 43 on March 7 and 67 on March 8.

Man United players celebrate with the Old Trafford crowd against Man City on March 8

But the Premier League was far from alone in the sporting world in not shutting down at that stage. For example, hundreds of thousands of people attended the Cheltenham Festival between March 10-13.

And football in the National League and several non-league divisions continued on Saturday March 14 despite it being clear to the world how deadly coronavirus was.

However, it’s simply impossible to know to what extent crowds at Premier League games in early March helped spread the virus.  

A packed grandstand at the Cheltenham Festival the week football decided to shut down

Furloughing straight away a PR disaster

The Government set up a coronavirus job retention scheme early in the crisis to enable companies forced to shut down to furlough employees they want to keep.

The Government is offering to pay 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages, up to £2,500 per month, until they are able to resume their job full time.

Daniel Levy came under criticism after announcing non-playing staff would be furloughed

John W Henry and the Liverpool owners have also been criticised for furloughing staff

What does ‘furlough’ mean?  

When an employee is placed on furlough they are temporarily put on a leave of absence and not paid, although they remain on the payroll, meaning that they do not lose their job.

This could be because there is no work for these employees, or that the company is not able to afford to pay them, because of the effects of the coronavirus crisis.

In the United Kingdom, the Government is offering to pay 80 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages, up to £2,500 per month, until they are able to resume their job full time. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will last for at least three months from March 1.

More information can be found HERE 

So far five of the 20 Premier League clubs have decided to take advantage of the furlough scheme for their non-playing staff.

Newcastle United were the first to do so, followed by Tottenham Hotspur, Bournemouth, Norwich City and Liverpool.

There has rightly been criticism that football clubs with billionaire owners have decided to use a Government scheme to pay staff instead of paying wages from their ample cash reserves.

It was a particular PR disaster for Spurs, with news of their staff furlough coming on the same day the club announced chairman Daniel Levy had received a £3m bonus for delivering their new stadium and a £1m pay rise to boost his salary to £4m.

There was a similar backlash against Liverpool, who have billionaire American owners, with club legend and Neville’s sparring partner in the Sky Sports studio Jamie Carragher saying the decision ‘squandered respect and goodwill.’

In Liverpool’s defence, the owners have promised to top up staff pay to ensure they get 100 per cent of what they should be paid instead of only 80 per cent.

Jamie Carragher led the criticism against his former club Liverpool by posting online

He was followed by another former Liverpool player in Dietmar Hamann, who said the decision to furlough staff was ‘contrary to the morals and value of the club I got to know’

Manchester City have become the first club to commit to paying non-playing staff in full

But it’s clear, as Neville points out, that furloughing staff isn’t a good look for football clubs when they are very much seen by the public as awash with cash.

Other clubs are now seeing that furloughing staff could be toxic from a PR perspective. On Sunday, Manchester City became the first Premier League club to guarantee they would not follow the lead of Liverpool, Spurs and the others.

It is likely now that several other top clubs will follow City’s lead and we could yet see some embarrassing U-turns from those who’d already decided to furlough. 

Turning on players publicly/trying to blindside them

Neville believes that the Premier League’s insistence that all players take a 30 per cent pay cut has blindsided them.

The league seemed to be echoing an intervention from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who called last week for players to take pay cuts.

Clearly unwilling to follow the Premier League’s lead, the players led a fightback on Saturday, basically saying they were willing to make sacrifices but only on their terms.

Following a remarkable conference call involving more than 40 high-profile captains, managers and league executives, the buck was passed back to the top-flight clubs.

How the meeting of top Premier League players and managers may have looked on Saturday

Health secretary Matt Hancock called for Premier League players to take a wage decrease 

In a statement released by the PFA, the players pointed out they did want to help out the Premier League clubs but would prefer to defer wages as opposed to taking an outright pay cut.

Their argument, aimed at Hancock, was that the taxman – and therefore the NHS and other services – would lose out to the tune of £200m if they accepted the 30 per cent pay decrease.

And in order to even defer wages, the players demanded the Premier League increase its £20m contribution to the NHS, furloughed staff at clubs were restored to full pay, and more money was given to the EFL and non-league hardship fund.

This decisive act of player power firmly booted the ball back into the Premier League’s court and very much said that any action from here would have to be done on their terms while simultaneously making clear they were more than happy to make sacrifices.

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was prominent in rallying players to the cause 

The players know full well that fans flock to the Premier League because of their skills and the moments of magic they produce, not to watch executives in suits count their cash.

They have deftly shifted the argument and it now remains to be seen how the Premier League will respond. 

 Either way, the league putting pressure on players to take pay cuts across the board is a strategy that seem to have backfired. 

No increase in funding for EFL/Non League

The Premier League’s pledge of £125m to help prop up EFL and non-league clubs struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may appear, on the face of it, generous.

But as Neville and many others have pointed out, this is money that was going to be given over in solidarity payments in a few months’ time anyway.

It’s just an advance payment to help the 72 EFL clubs and those in non-league pyramid out in the short-term but doesn’t offer a long-term solution.

As the PFA statement released following Saturday’s player meeting said: ‘The EFL money is an advance.

Locked gates spell real trouble for EFL clubs reliant on gate receipts and matchday income

‘Importantly, it will aid cashflow in the immediate future but football needs to find a way to increase funding to the EFL and non-league clubs in the long term.

‘Many clubs require and increase in funding just to survive. We believe in our football pyramid and again stress the need for solidarity between all clubs.

‘Going forward, we are working together to find a solution which will be continually reviewed in order to assess the circumstance of the crisis.’

The players’ acknowledgement of the important of those below the elite is welcome and it’s certainly true that more cash will be needed to keep many clubs going.

Some clubs in the EFL rely on gate receipts and matchday revenue for 70 per cent of their income and at the present time they aren’t receiving anything with games suspended.

Neville is co-owner at League Two Salford City, along with others in Man United’s Class of 92

Ironically, Salford City, the League Two club part-owned by Neville, will probably be able to ride out the storm better than most given their wealthy backers.

But he’s right to highlight that this £125m isn’t new money and isn’t the generous gift it first appears to be.

All stakeholders unhappy with their approach

Neville’s fifth point suggests that everyone with an interest in the Premier League has been left unhappy with the action they’ve taken so far.

It doesn’t specify, but it’s likely to include players, clubs, sponsors and, especially, broadcasters.

So much hinges on whether the 2019-20 season is left unfinished, meaning that Sky Sports, BT Sport and the Premier League’s international broadcasters, may try and claim back part of the £762m paid for rights to game that aren’t played.

Sky Sports and other broadcasters could demand as much £762m if the season is not finished

That would have an enormous knock-on effect to club finances and there is certainly a nervousness in boardrooms at the possibility of losing tens of millions of pounds as a result.

The Premier League’s sponsors may take a similar approach, claiming the unfulfilled fixtures have limited their brand exposure.

And that’s without mentioning the web of litigation we can expect if the season is declared null and void, denying Liverpool their first league title in three decades and relegating those currently in the bottom three.

Now the players aren’t happy either and it appears the Premier League are running out of allies as it faces up to the biggest crisis of its history.

 


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