With the decision that senior football will be closed down until at least 3rd April following the outbreak of coronavirus, the game’s authorities will face the enormous challenge of restoring normal service whenever on-field activities resume.
Top of the list is the conundrum of what becomes of the 2019-20 season? Should it be declared null and void, be considered as finishing when play was halted on 13 March or must the remaining games be played, come what may?
Whichever view is taken is understandable. It can only be expected though that the first two options could generate time-consuming ligation surrounding the clubs that feel hard done by. Those who favour the latter would point out the importance of retaining the integrity of the Premier League and Football League.
At this stage, it is impossible to be sure when the next games will be played. It is possible that there could be only a limited period of time to play the outstanding games before the end of the year. If so, how would that impact on the fixture schedule for next season?
Looking further ahead, the 2022-23 fixture list already faces a radical overhaul with the FIFA World Cup due to be played in Qatar in November and December 2022.
Of course, the award of the greatest football show on earth to Qatar has been considered by some as an unnecessary upheaval of the football calendar but, with the recent unforeseen circumstances, could it now be an unexpected catalyst for change?
For example, should the outstanding games not be played until October / November, it would be virtually impossible to play all the games that would then be expected to take place in the 2020-21 season before the usual end dates in May 2021.
So this may be the opportunity to avoid further disruption in 2022 and fall in line with some of the north European leagues? A permanent change to seasons could see them run somewhere in a January to December framework with a summer break for the more regular international tournaments instead of the traditional August to May league programme.
Although undoubtedly revolutionary, a change to a so-called ‘summer’ season would not be unique in UK team sport.
Back in 1996, rugby league’s top division became known as Super League with the established August to May First Division season changing to a February to October campaign. Arguably, it was move that saved the 13-a-side code at professional level.
Speaking at the time of the competition’s 20th anniversary in 2016, current Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington commented: “We were stepping into the big, brave new world of Super League and it was somewhere the sport had never trodden before. There was a real mixture of uncertainty, excitement and trepidation.”
So what if football chose to follow the rugby league example?
An initial option could be to stage the opening games in the closing weeks on the old year. In other words, the start of a new season would coincide with Christmas. Not only does the festive period attract some of the largest crowds of the season but traditionalists fear that should recent trends continue, this icon of English football could be weakened or even lost in years to come.
The more immediate considerations revolve around the date when regular play will resume.
If the more optimistic hopes come to fruition, there would be no appetite for a long wait before a new season starts in December.
As a one-off, could a new knock-out competition be created individually for each of the Premier League and the three Football League divisions?
Similar to past shortly-lived competitions such as the Watney Cup and Screen Sports Super Cup, it is likely that high-profile sponsors would be keen to attach their names to the Premier League Cup, Championship Cup and so on as the game makes it’s eagerly awaited return.
The new competitions could be staged in a format that suits the time available. Just as importantly, they would give the players a pre-season that would allow them to reacquaint themselves at the level of competition where they will parade their skills.
When all is said and done, any change to the current tried and tested procedure is going require the co-operation and likely sacrifices on the part of the leading stakeholders and other leading leagues in Europe.
Substantive changes are already being considered by UEFA for the Champions League from 2024 so it would seem that fate has dealt a hand that gives an incentive to shape football’s long-term future.
Indeed, all concerned are now in unchartered territory and, like never before, necessity may have to be the mother of football’s re-invention.