Stoke City, for now, have been told to carry on with business as usual as much as they can.
There had been speculation leading up to a press conference with Prime Minister Boris Johnson today that stepping up the ‘delay’ phase of a plan to tackle the coronavirus pandemic would lead to all sporting events having to take place behind closed doors.
That has already happened across Europe – and may happen in the UK but largely because of the stress they put on public services rather than the spread of the virus. The EFL and the government remain in discussions about what will happen next.
Behind closed doors matches would be expected to be streamed live to ticket holders – but they would have an obvious impact on lower league clubs whose financial health is already precarious.
Adrian Bevington, former senior director at the FA and ex-head of recruitment at Middlesbrough, admitted some would struggle to cope.
He told Sky News: “I’ve worked in football for a long time and the further down the pyramid you go, particularly when you look at League One and League Two clubs (the bigger the impact). I’ve seen today people from Peterborough and Oxford United speak publicly on social media about losses of £500,000 being referenced or £100,000 a game.
“Cash flow is absolutely crucial the further down the pyramid you go so the impact of playing games behind closed doors, or reduced ticket revenue coming in or a lack of hospitality will have a massive impact on those clubs.
“If we suspend the games, when will they be replayed?
“If they knew they were then going to play the games in front of a crowd, obviously they’ve got the ability then to try to bridge a gap. The unknown variable for everyone, unfortunately, is that we don’t really know.
“It was very interesting listening to the Prime Minister and experts’ press conference today and the periods of phases maybe in summer, where it will get back to normal after we’ve gone past the peak. That has an impact on lots of other things.
“We’re due to have Euro 2020 here in the summer, of which Wembley is hosting a number of major games including the final. It’s very much a moving feast.
“But for the clubs particularly in League One or League Two that have much reduced income compared to the elite in the Premier League, this is a big issue.
“Playing games behind closed doors also presents its challenges because you’re reducing your income and putting the game on at cost. Then you get the issue that’s being talked about with the bigger clubs where you may get mass congregations outside as well.”
Stoke pulled in £6.398m in gate receipts for 25 home games in 2018/19, which works out at about £255,000 per game.
They do have around 19,000 season ticket holders, however, who have already paid for entry to league matches up front. There are five matches remaining at the bet365 Stadium this term as Michael O’Neill tries to keep the club in the Championship.
He is trying to keep focus on the football for his players, who go to Reading on Saturday.
Bevington said: “I think it’s imperative we are listening to experts. I watched the press conference this afternoon with the Prime Minister and senior medical science advisers and I thought the two advisers were particularly impressive.
“Ultimately if you are one of the sports bodies at the moment, I think they’ve got to take that advice on board.
“There is clearly a difference of opinion country by country and numerous sports have been suspended or cancelled over the last few days, including some today.
“What’s clear in the UK is that there has been a lot of dialogue in the last couple of weeks. There was a very big meeting last week with the sports governing bodies, broadcasters and the government and that dialogue will continue.
“The EFL has referred to that today when they confirmed fixtures will go ahead this weekend – and the reference point everyone is talking about is the meeting of Uefa with national football associations. That will be another big day in the calendar.
“It’s very fluid and we all have to be conscious of that. As days go by, there will be different decisions.”
The EFL has already lost one club this season, with Bury going out of business. Bolton Wanderers were only saved by a last minute rescue package late in the summer too.
There is a real concern that this crisis “could send some clubs to the wall”.
The Athletic report today: “Several clubs are effectively living from one home gate to another. The EFL has some reserves but not enough to pay hundreds of players’ wages until next season.
“The league raised this during Monday’s DCMS meeting but it knows the government cannot go any further than the chancellor went on Wednesday. So any help will be limited to tax deferrals and state-backed cheap loans from banks. There will, however, be a long queue for those from companies that can claim to be far more fundamentally sound than most lower-division football teams.
“Some sources have told The Athletic most British clubs are insured against “force majeure” events that prevent them from playing the games that generate the wages. But it is unlikely these policies will cover all their costs indefinitely and the level of cover across the leagues varies widely.”