An unprecedented situation may need a radical solution, says Brighton and Hove Albion chief executive Paul Barber as he discusses the options for how football can return after the coronavirus.
Barber admits it is ‘difficult to imagine’ at the moment that play will resume early next month, with all fixtures currently suspended until at least April 3 to try to contain or delay the spread of coronavirus.
And that has led to speculation and discussion about what should happen if matches cannot be re-scheduled in a timely period, particularly before June 30 and the administrative end to the 2019/20 season.
One of the options suggested is to freeze the tables where they now stand, with Liverpool crowned Premier League champions.
But Barber says a possible option after doing that is to expand the top flight for 2020/21 so that no teams suffer the financial consequences of being relegated, while accepting Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion into the division as the current Championship top two.
That would be followed by four being relegated the following season and only two going up again to bring the division back to 20 teams.
What happens at the bottom end of the Championship, where Stoke City have risen to 17th under Michael O’Neill but are only three points outside the relegation zone, is also up for debate.
Barber said on BBC’s Football Focus: “If we were to freeze the league it would be incredibly unjust not to award Liverpool the title. I think everyone in the game appreciates what a fantastic season they’ve had and what a wonderful team they are.
“So that for me would be very unjust – but equally it would be very unjust for teams to be relegated when there were still eight, nine or 10 games to play in the Premier League. The financial consequences for those teams would be very difficult.
“Equally it would be unjust if Leeds and West Brom were not promoted because we know how hard it is to get out of the Championship. We know how hard it is to get even to this stage of the season in the top two. It would be very cruel.”
He added: “(An expanded Premier League) is a possible option, to leave the 20 teams in the Premier League as it is, would help us and help others and the top two of the Championship would give us a larger league next season and perhaps four relegation places next season then two up again the next season to get us back to 20… It has some merit.
“Clearly there would be details and a number of issues to work out, including qualification for European places – but we are in unprecedented times. We may have to have unprecedented solutions.”
It would be very cruel, too, and an equal financial miss for other clubs who have been in contention to win promotion to the Premier League.
Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston North End currently occupy the play-off places while Bristol City, Millwall, Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers, Swansea, Derby and Queens Park Rangers are still within six points of the top six with nine games to play.
But Barber said: “If I was in that position I would really feel for them. But we are all in a situation where, with seven, eight or nine games to go, we could all end up in a better place than we are. If we can’t complete the season, we have to look at quite radical solutions to get over the short-term ‘hump’ as it is.
“We could find ourselves delaying the season but then we would impact another season if we were to delay for too long, so there’s a whole range of different issues.
“Players’ contracts come into it too because most of those expire in one form or another on June 30, or that would be the natural break for most contracts. If we extend the season into July or further what would be the implications? Would we have the same squads? Different squads? Would players be able to move between teams at that time?
“There are so many implications of delaying the season beyond a certain point. It may get to a point where we have to be pragmatic, we have to be sensible – we have to ask everyone for understanding and co-operation.
“The most important thing in all of this is that we put health first. Not just players and coaches and spectators but also the staff at the club and also realise we are relying on emergency services to attend stadiums behind closed doors when they could be needed elsewhere in the community.”