Should clubs use the Government Furlough Scheme?

The COVID-19 pandemic has already hugely affected the global economy, with many families and businesses struggling to get by. However, the general consensus amongst the public appears to be that Premier League football teams should endure rather than adapt to these financial circumstances.

Very few businesses stand to lose more revenue due to COVID-19 than football clubs. Granted, this is almost entirely due to the fact that the number of organisations that generate more revenue than football clubs is miniscule. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the pandemic will have an astronomical impact on the footballing economy.

Yet, top sides Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool came under immense criticism when they opted to use the Government’s job retention scheme, by furloughing non-playing staff. In fact, they were put under so much scrutiny by the media, pundits and fan groups alike that both teams decided to reverse their initial decisions.

This is in spite of the fact that the furlough scheme itself explicitly states that ‘all employers can claim’. So, can it not be said that they were included in this definition on purpose, for the Government will have wanted them to bring a claim? After all, these sides do tremendous work supporting their local communities and have a monumental impact on the economy in their respective areas. If either were to fail, its impact would be both catastrophic and long-lasting.

Overall, the answer to this question appears to be a resounding no. Both Spurs and Liverpool have billionaire owners, whom the majority of us feel should not benefit from such a scheme that will ultimately be funded by the taxpayer. This is reinforced by the fact that some of these owners also happen to be tax exiles.

TalkSPORT host Georgie Bingham even went so far as to suggest that clubs which take advantage of the Government scheme should be banned from participating in the next transfer window. This seems like far too extreme a measure that would disproportionately punish smaller clubs, such as Norwich, whose actions, whilst morally questionable, are legally valid.

This resolution has been misrepresented as fair: clubs that furlough non-playing staff are doing so to protect jobs, so they must be in a financial situation where they cannot afford to do transfers anyway, correct? In reality, if clubs were offered the choice between reducing their non-playing staff and foregoing a transfer window, their decision would not be so straightforward.

Bournemouth, for example, have only been able to survive in England’s top division, with a far inferior stadium, due to their successful player investment. As a result, posing such an ultimatum to teams would be dangerous and not necessarily yield the results it desires.

Furthermore, such ‘punishments’ would create a toxic atmosphere within the footballing community. The Beautiful Game should be celebrated when it returns, not leave a bitter taste in the mouths of some supporters.

However, an imperfect reality may be likely, especially if English sides follow the lead of some Spanish clubs such as Barcelona, whose players have taken a 70% wage cut. Toby Alderweireld’s agent, Belgian Stijn Francis, has stated that teams “reducing their players’ wages should accept that the players can terminate their employment for free”, as regular workers would be able to do.

Therefore, football may end up in a situation where players attempt to walk out of clubs if they try to sign new recruits before first reimbursing their reduced wages. This, combined with the fact that many other players have contracts expiring potentially mid-way through this season, and we could face teams struggling to field eleven men. This would be unworkable if proposed plans to increase the rate of fixtures to finish the season quickly were to go ahead.

Due to this, it is my belief that most teams that have furloughed non-playing staff or reduced players’ wages will in fact repay these individuals before making new signings, to avoid these potentially disastrous scenarios.

Two weeks passed before Tottenham decided against furloughing staff. Two weeks in which they were widely criticised and ridiculed by the press and their own fans. What happened a few days before their retraction? The agent of their best defender, who only recently signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract released the aforementioned statement. A coincidence? Maybe, but I would not be surprised if it was not.

Banning teams from signing players in response to using a scheme they are legally entitled to use is simply unjust. However, it may still be that rich clubs furloughing their staff feels morally wrong. So, what is a better solution?

Money dictates football, yet it is the players who dictate how much money football clubs make. Most non-playing staff are replaceable, whereas a lot of players are not.

Therefore, in my opinion, we should campaign for players, as Alderweireld’s agent suggested he would, to threaten to walk out of clubs if they sign players before repaying not only them, but any non-playing staff who have taken a wage reduction too.

That way football can have a harmonious return, to be enjoyed by all.

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Luke Saward

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July 2021
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