There was a time that you could refer to football as the people’s game and keep a straight face. Based on the events of the last couple of weeks, not anymore.
If recent events have shown us anything, it’s that the biggest sport in the world, one with fundamentally working class roots, has been ripped from the masses and handed to the privileged few. It has been hijacked by a small percentage of people who are so out of touch with the thoughts and feelings of the average person that they might as well be a different species.
I am of course referring to the behaviour of certain Premier League footballers and clubs during the ongoing Coronavirus conflict, probably the greatest challenge facing this nation since the Second World War.
It’s worth clarifying at this point that it is a minority of individuals who have shamed themselves during this national emergency and that there are plenty of positive stories emerging as well. Marcus Rashford, for example, has confirmed his own status as a role model by raising over £20 million in food donations for vulnerable children.
However, unfortunately when the shameful minority include a Premier League captain, a seasoned England international and Liverpool, the runaway league leaders and an organisation who define themselves as the ultimate community club, the media attention generated will always overshadow the actions of heroes like Rashford.
Leading the individual charge for the Premier League Hall of Shame are Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker. At opposite ends of their England careers, each have faced a recent battle to convince England manager Gareth Southgate that they warrant inclusion in his plans for Euro 2021.
So at a time when healthcare professionals are being heralded as heroes for selflessly risking their lives, and in some cases dying, to save others, what did this boneheaded pair do?
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish flouted lockdown rules by attending a house party and then crashing his car. Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and an unnamed friend invited two escorts round to Walker’s home. In both instances, just hours earlier, the players had used their substantial social followings to post messages insisting that the general public abide by the government’s lockdown rules, before then issuing grovelling apologies for behaving like utter hypocrites.
It should serve as a lesson to anyone who believe that the social media accounts of footballers are in any way legit. Neither player respected the advice that they were trying to impart on their followers and you suspect that neither would have apologised had they not been caught and faced an escalating PR crisis.
The difference between them and Rashford is the difference between masquerading as a role model and acting like one. That, at 22-years-old, Rashford is two years younger than Grealish and seven years Walker’s junior should shame the pair of them.
However, the actions of a few idiotic footballers pale in significance to the decisions made by five Premier League clubs in recent weeks. Liverpool, Newcastle, Tottenham, Bournemouth and Norwich became the Premier League’s filthy five when each decided to take advantage of the government’s furlough scheme and place their non-playing staff on leave.
The furlough scheme, designed to protect small businesses and employees who might otherwise be facing redundancy in such testing times, shifts the wage burden from a business onto the government and, indirectly, the tax payer. It was certainly not created to protect a club such as Liverpool who, just weeks earlier, had announced a record pre-tax profit of £42 million for the year.
With notoriously villainous chairmen Daniel Levy and Mike Ashley in charge, nobody was particularly surprised when Tottenham and Newcastle decided to abuse the scheme.
Ashley, in particular, is already such a figure of hatred for most of his own club’s supporters that he had little to lose reputationally by taking such a cynical course of action.
With Liverpool though, it felt different. A club which represent the community like no other, whose entire manifesto is built around the lyrics ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and who had just announced record profits after an unprecedented two years of success. They made the catastrophic decision to furlough their own staff in an announcement made last week.
It was an announcement that was met with fury from the footballing world and, with great credit, from many of their own supporters. Proving that fans do still hold some sway if they mobilise their anger as one, such vitriol was vented at the club that, on Monday, Liverpool announced a u-turn, admitting that they had grossly misjudged the situation.
For their owners, who had worked so hard to restore their own relationship with the fans after a rocky start, unfortunately the damage has been done. For them it is a case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. However, one positive to emerge from the situation is that the furore will surely put the remaining 15 Premier League clubs off making the same decision.
Indeed, if they have any sense, it should also force Newcastle, Tottenham, Norwich and Bournemouth to reconsider their own actions. Although Liverpool have taken the brunt of the criticism, none of the others should escape censure here.
Premier League football clubs pay their star players, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, so the notion that they would benefit significantly from shifting the wages of kitchen staff on £20,000 per year from their books is laughable. However, an unfolding narrative surrounding the footballers wages could yet prove to be the most damaging of all as the relationship between the game and the supporters is strained to breaking point.
Most businesses across the country are now engaging in dramatic cost cutting exercises and many are asking any non-furloughed staff to take temporary paycuts. Sure enough, the Premier League clubs decided to follow suit with their players. It is, you might assume, a far more reasonable way to save money than shifting the wages of their low earning staff onto the tax payer.
Representatives of each club and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) held a conference call on Friday to discuss the mooted possibility of players taking a temporary 30% paycut to help secure the futures of their clubs at a time when their incomes have come to a sudden and unexpected halt.
White smoke emerged from the chimney of the PFA to indicate that a decision had been made. Astonishingly, they declared that a 30% paycut would cost the UK government £200 million in taxes over a three month period and they were therefore concerned that it would be counterproductive in the battle against Coronavirus.
In short, they collectively managed to produce an excuse that has allowed them to make no sacrifice and portray it as the most noble course of action.
The government have already pledged virtually unlimited funds to the NHS in a bid to tackle the Coronavirus. Although the tax saving argument of the PFA might be technically accurate, the suggestion that it would have any significant bearing on the immediate outcome of a national crisis is nothing short of reprehensible. Predictably, it has been met with a reaction of fury, mirth and glum acceptance by those who couldn’t believe they expected any differently to begin with.
As has been the suggestion by certain footballing personalities, like Wayne Rooney and Gary Neville, that footballers are unfairly being backed into a corner and could face financial ruin if asked to sacrifice part of their salary.
To put it in perspective, the average Premier League monthly wage is £240,000 and the average annual wage in the UK is just over £30,000, eight times less. Those fearing for their healths and financial futures would be forgiven for not rushing to their doorsteps to applaud those brave footballers struggling to get by on £168,000 per month, driven to parties and escorts.
The recent actions of these players, clubs and associations have shown that the contrast between the average football fan and those inside the Premier League bubble is as stark as it has ever been. When we look back in years to come at football’s response to the Coronavirus, will we remember the community outreach schemes and actions of Marcus Rashford or will we remember players ignoring lockdown rules and refusing to take paycuts? Most likely the latter.
Unfortunately is seems as though football is as far away from being the people’s game as it has ever been.
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