here was one Rotherham fan in the car park, so I tooted at them and waved. I thought: ‘Wow, I could be the manager of Tickhill, where I live, and I’d probably get more people wave at me when I get promotion,’” Paul Warne says. He is reflecting on the muted celebrations when he arrived at the stadium following confirmation his Rotherham team had finished as runners-up to Coventry in League One, after the regular season was curtailed owing to coronavirus. Happiness is inevitably tinged with hollowness given the circumstances.
Warne spent Wednesday afternoon delivering gifts, including crates of beer, to his backroom staff after a celebratory video call on Tuesday, when he gave a “Churchillian speech” to his players. “I’m a real hugger and a shaker, and I can’t do any of that so I’m finding distancing very difficult,” he says.
Coventry had to make do with an online party instead of an open-top bus parade, and players and staff enjoyed a glass of champagne at their training ground where the manager, Mark Robins, spent the afternoon pacing around the chief executive’s office awaiting confirmation they had been crowned champions.
Robins returned in March 2017, the month before relegation to League Two, and has overseen two promotions in three seasons on a modest budget. And then there is the maddening reality that Coventry, who ground-shared with Northampton in 2013-14, have been playing home matches 22 miles away from the city in Birmingham since August.
“I joined the club a month before he did and it was in turmoil when we joined,” says Dave Boddy, Coventry’s chief executive. “It was a mess and the job that he has done should not be underestimated. There were cuts being made all over the place and we’ve turned it around. We, collectively, have taken the club back to where it was when the owners [Sisu] took over and there are still difficult circumstances – we haven’t had our own stadium to play in and have been forced to play at Birmingham – but we have restored our reputation.”
But not everyone is happy. Peterborough, bumped out of the play-offs on a points-per-game system, were left reeling, with their co-owner, Darragh MacAnthony, describing the protracted saga as a “shit show”. Next season, he says, his staff will return hellbent on promotion in readiness for the “Vengeance Tour”.
Tranmere, understandably, feel particularly hard done by and say they are preparing for a £1m drop in income and that staff will lose jobs as a result of being relegated after a majority of 18 teams voted to curtail the season. They had 10 games remaining and, for the context of how cruel relegation is, it is worth considering AFC Wimbledon, Rochdale and Oxford survived having been in the bottom four with nine games to play last season
In League Two Macclesfield are in limbo as they await an independent hearing, expected this month, over the non-payment of wages and their players have accused the EFL of “trying their best to throw” them out of the Football League. Macclesfield have been docked 11 points this season for a series of off-field misdemeanours and hover three points above the bottom club, Stevenage, who naturally hope things go their way. The EFL said relegation would be implemented only if the National League provides assurances it will start the 2020-21 season.
The financial reward of promotion probably means more this season, Warne says, because it helps shield jobs and livelihoods at Rotherham amid the coronavirus crisis. “It is a massive relief for me,” the manager says. “It doesn’t feel like someone is sitting on my chest any more.”
Many teams furloughed staff following news of curtailment and Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, has acknowledged the challenges facing clubs has not diminished. “The aim is to make sure all the clubs survive,” he said.
Gate receipts make up around 30%-40% of income for the majority of League One and Two clubs but most are budgeting on the basis of playing behind closed doors until at least next year. There are genuine concerns some clubs will not make it that far.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if a few stadiums were locked up and never opened again,” says Warne, a former Rotherham, Oldham and Yeovil midfielder. “I hope that isn’t the case but unfortunately the staff at clubs are always the first to go.
“When teams fall out of the Championship, it is always peripheral coaching staff that are first to go – Nigel Clough fell on his sword recently. Some teams might go from two masseurs, two physios and two sports scientists to all of sudden just having one of each. It’s the same on the media side and people in the club shop. It hits a lot of people. There will be tough decisions for a lot of people in the next weeks and months.”
Managers are anticipating a different landscape; many expect to operate with smaller squads and lean on their academy or under-23s to supplement their options. Some clubs will be desperate to get high-earning players off the wage bill as soon as the transfer window reopens, while others may be lucky enough to be in a position to take advantage of such scenarios.
“I think it will be a bit of a forest fire and maybe football will come out a little bit healthier in the long run,” Warne says. “In the moment, talking about people’s jobs, it’s not kind to talk about things being healthier, but I do expect change.”