English football faces grim future: Coronavirus impact on lower leagues

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"We run the real risk of losing many famous football clubs. It could destroy the integrity of the competitions we love as football supporters. Ultimately the crisis may threaten the very existence of our football clubs if sufficient action is not taken. My concern is that we might have double figures of clubs that go to the wall."

It's a dire warning from Fleetwood Town chairman Andy Pilley as he discusses the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on football.

Pilley's reasoning is simple. With football in a state of shutdown across Europe, Fleetwood Town -- fifth in League One, England's third tier -- have not played a game since March 10. Their last home game was on March 7. Over the past month, with the UK on lockdown since March 23, almost every revenue stream, from gate receipts to office space rentals, has collapsed.

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"We're in a world now with no money coming in and only money going out," Pilley told ESPN. "It's the basics of economics that your ins have to be more than your outs."

KPMG estimates that as a direct result of the pandemic, total losses for Europe's big five leagues could be anywhere between €3.5-4 billion. In England, the Premier League could take a hit of up to €1.25bn while the 48 clubs that make up League One and League Two are expecting combined losses of somewhere in the region of £50 million. The issues facing Fleetwood, who play in a coastal town in the north west of England with a population just over 25,000, are replicated across the divisions where a number of clubs regularly flirt with financial ruin even without the help of a once in a generation disaster.

"With every game we [miss] as a result of coronavirus, we're losing about £125,000," said Mark Caitlin, chief executive of Portsmouth, fourth in League One.

"Will all clubs survive? It all depends on how long it goes on," Portsmouth defender Christian Burgess added. "But there's an inevitability that if this goes on, some clubs will fall out of the pyramid. I think a number of others will be in administration. I think that's a real possibility."

Every league below the National League North and South, the sixth tier of English football, has already been cancelled and this season's results expunged. The fifth tier, the National League, has cancelled all remaining games to "bring a degree of certainty to our clubs coping with the business implications of the virus," according to CEO Michael Tattersall. Yet the league is still exploring ways to solve the issues surrounding what it calls the "sporting outcomes."

The consensus higher up the pyramid is to finish the campaign, but there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Chief among them is the issue of contracts, because a number of players are on deals that will expire on June 30.

"I'll be amazed if we're back playing before June and maybe July," said Mark Devlin, chief executive of Huddersfield Town. "If that's the case, it brings on a whole heap of contract issues and more. Every club is in the same boat and it's far from ideal.

"A simple remedy would be to move the deadline back [from June 30], but some players might feel uncomfortable about that. In particular, players who have moves in the bag or who are moving up a level. It's far from clear."

With June 30 a little over two months away and no resolution in sight so far, players and agents are in the dark.

"Contracts end on June 30 and for those players, they're unsure what's going on, they're worried," said Ben Tozer, 30, a midfielder who plays in League Two for Cheltenham Town. "Clubs scouting them won't be doing so any longer. Some might have things lined up that will fall through."

Alan McCormack, a 36-year-old defender/midfielder for League Two side Northampton Town, echoed those worries.

"Players are concerned if they're out of contract," he said. "They'll be chatting to other clubs [right now, as we get closer to June 30], so it's all a bit weird for them. They want to move on but might not be able to, and they don't want anything to jeopardise their moves. We need a central authority to make the deadline the same for everyone."

For some players, the uncertainty is simply not knowing where they will play after the summer. For others, the issue is far more serious and the most pressing matter is how they are going to pay the bills.

"Not everyone is on big money in professional football," Burgess added. "There are also those other players whose contracts are up. They will be worried they're going to be let go and that's obviously a serious worry for those guys."

One of the more pressing issues for football league clubs in the short term and long term is players' wages.

A deal between the EFL and the PFA (Professional Footballers' Association) has already been brokered that will see players in League One and League Two on more than £30,000 a week defer 25% of their wages for April. What happens in May and June is still up in the air. The situation in the Championship is just as worrying, with new EFL chairman Rick Parry estimating clubs in the second tier collectively spend 106% of their turnover on wages alone.

"I think there's a need across the board to have the discussions with players because wages are the biggest single factor that could take clubs to the brink," Devlin said. "Whether or not clubs want to admit they're in dire straits, I don't know.

"Championship clubs have had regular group meetings via Zoom, where we've been talking about what we can do about player salaries, as that is the biggest factor affecting clubs right now. We think a coordinated approach by all clubs using the PFA is the fairest way to go forward, so finding a formula that is fair to players, but which also reduces or defers their wages for an amount of time.

"If we can do that as one body or one group, then we feel that's the best solution. There will be other clubs around the divisions, and even clubs in our league like Leeds and Birmingham, who moved very quickly to speak to their players. That would tell you they had immediate reasons to do that."

For players, it's even more complex. Those lower down the pyramid don't command the riches on offer in the Premier League and rely on their wages to pay the bills. But refusing to take a cut in the short term could cause some clubs to fold as a consequence, thereby narrowing the potential pool of employers in the future. Ultimately, there is no easy answer though club chairmen and owners, in particular, are talking about the coronavirus pandemic as a way to change the way clubs are run forever.

"Football has got the chance to press the reset button and become sustainable for the first time in a long, long time." -- Fleetwood Town chairman Andy Pilley.

"Football needs to take a long hard look at itself," Caitlin said. "We wish every club could restrict the amount of money a rich owner puts in and instead instills a culture of self-sustaining to stop the boom-or-bust nature. If we can't change it now, we'll never get a better opportunity."

It has not been all bad news and gloom for English football's lower leagues. Despite the precarious financial picture, some clubs have focused their efforts on giving back to the communities they help support. Stockport County, in the National League, have donated £75,000 to the Stockport NHS Trust, as well as every penny received by the club's online shop in April. They are, though, not without financial worries and have furloughed all players and staff through the UK government's job retention scheme.

Huddersfield are also doing their bit.

"It's important for us take this moment to have more communication with our supporters," manager Danny Cowley said. "We know that some of our supporters might be struggling financially, or that some are living on their own, so if we can speak to them then it's a good chance to show some human quality.

"Our club foundation is also providing enough food and equipment to supply 40 breakfast clubs around Huddersfield, which equates to about two million breakfasts for kids of key workers during the lockdown so far. Football means an awful lot to an awful lot of people in this town, and while the town is still running, we're trying to do our bit to keep it going."

"Where they can, players are also helping out as the country deals with the pandemic, and more than 150 Premier League players have signed up for the Players Together initiative to donate funds to the NHS.

"It's a result of all of us being able to help," Manchester United midfielder Jesse Lingard said. "It's a great thing to come together and support the NHS, that's the most important thing in all of this. They're under huge pressure and I'm just in awe of what they're doing."

Players lower down the leagues have also found ways to play their part. "I'm joining a challenge whereby players and staff are raising money for NHS by shaving hair off," Tozer said. "I'm going to shave mine, then nominate two others. Raising money for the most important cause is the most important thing we can do at the moment."

For now, footballers up and down the country can only sit and wait, filling their time with home training sessions and other activities to fill the days without football. The EFL has privately told clubs to prepare for a return to group training in May, with a view to resuming the season "at relatively short notice," but the plan of action will, in the first instance, be determined by politicians, and the UK government has already extended the lockdown for at least another three weeks.

"I've been doing a lot of cooking," Lingard said. "I've got Larnell Cole [former United academy teammate, now playing for FC United of Manchester] here with me while we're in lockdown.

"He's been good company. He's showed me how to cook for myself. I'm now following a lot of YouTube tutorials. I've never really had to cook for myself before and so it's a good opportunity to become a bit more independent, and I think I'll definitely carry it on when all this is over. My speciality is chicken and chilli pasta, which was a favourite of mine at Carrington [Manchester United's training facility]. We've also been given loads of old clips of reserves to watch with Larnell, which has given us a good chance to reminisce."

Lingard has his own gym at his Cheshire home to help stay in shape, but life for a locked-down League Two footballer is a little more modest.

"I have no gym, so it's tougher," Tozer said. "It's hard to feel part of the team when you're constantly working on your own. Me and my wife and 18-month-old son do the Joe Wicks PE workout together. That's Monday to Friday, and some of that's actually quite tough! For me, I've been spending time with my kid -- I understand why my wife is so knackered!"

Without days spent on the training ground or travelling to the next game, managers are using their extra time to keep ahead of the game, whatever that might look like when football eventually returns.

"We're still watching games and using Wyscout and Huddle to monitor players," Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson said. "We still have agents still ringing us about players that are out of contract ahead of possible movement when the transfer window reopens.

"We're using this time to look at a lot of scenarios with different players, while we're also watching all the games to analyse our own play and our opponents."

"I'm going to come back as an IT expert in my next life," added Cowley, who hasn't seen his Huddersfield team play since March 7. "Using technology is where we're at currently and we're just trying to use it as an opportunity. The job has gone from 100mph to what feels like someone hitting the pause button.

"Life is certainly very different now. We're just trying to stay positive."

As football continues to battle coronavirus, it's all anyone can do.