Six League One clubs with hopes of promotion on Thursday night outlined their determination to complete the season in a sign of deep divisions among clubs concerning the correct response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Peterborough’s chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, released a statement he said was made on behalf of his club and five others in the division’s top 10: Oxford, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Fleetwood and Sunderland.
The message was relayed before clubs in League One and League Two meet on Friday and with the increasingly contentious decision over whether to continue or abandon their seasons likely to be put to a vote next week.
“We as a collective are united in our goal to finish this season,” MacAnthony tweeted. “We have no desire for voiding the season, PPG [points-per-game] scenarios/letting a computer decide our footballing fate. For our fans/staff & for the integrity of our sport we are all looking forward to completing our pending fixtures/season under guidance from the EFL at a time it is deemed safe to do so.”
Although the EFL continues to work towards a resumption and is planning for a return to training on 25 May, lower-division clubs are split over the options. Do they continue behind closed doors in late June, delay a restart until August or September, void the campaign, or retain promotion and relegation on a points-per-game basis? There seems to be no consensus regarding a situation described as a mess by different sources and there are fears clubs denied promotion could initiate legal action.
The EFL will discuss each individual stance and concerns with third-tier club secretaries on Friday. In a sign of the divide in League One Rochdale’s chief executive, David Bottomley, said on Thursday the campaign should end now, on a points-per-game basis. “You have to end the season. We think you should just award automatic promotion and relegation and forget the play-offs, so you’ve got two up to the Championship and two down.”
A majority of those in League Two want a halt called to the season. The biggest problem is funding a restart when it is not uncommon for players and backroom staff to have been furloughed and where a significant proportion of annual revenue is derived from gate receipts and matchday hospitality.
Although teams such as Sunderland – who regularly attract crowds in excess of 30,000 and have 24,000 season-ticket holders – would be able to mitigate some of the financial damage through selling live streaming of games, others, especially in League Two, could struggle badly.
Another problem is the need for teams to be compliant with the EFL’s 50-page return-to-training safety protocols. Whereas the bigger clubs should have little difficulty meeting the criteria, physical distancing requirements are extremely difficult to fulfil at some smaller, often cramped, training grounds. One club questioned whether all of their rivals would be motivated to meet the criteria if continuing the season would not serve their interests. Every facility must be approved for use by Public Health England, whose inspectors face a challenge to complete this task before 25 May. Then there is the price of the twice‑weekly coronavirus tests mandatory for players and staff. These cost £150 per test and will need to be conducted in specially built gazebos.
The players are still to be consulted but, particularly among those furloughed, there is understood to be a widespread enthusiasm for returning. It is thought those out of contract in June would be offered short-term extensions.
While getting players fit in time for a late June kick-off concerns several clubs, the one area where consensus reigns is the desire to play home and away at their own grounds. There is agreement that neutral grounds would damage the competition’s integrity. Moreover, individual clubs invariably have strong relationships with their local police force and seem confident supporters would stay away from stadiums.