Will League One football return in the coming months for Wanderers? And how could an abandoned season shape the club’s short-term future?
Marc Iles examines some of the key questions as the game considers whether it is safe to resume matches after the coronavirus lockdown.
What happens if they cannot finish the League One season?
FIFA have urged all leagues to complete, if possible, but have already seen the likes of France, Belgium and Holland call time on their competitions.
They want ‘Sporting Merit’ to be used to decide league positions, which has been widely interpreted as ‘points per game’ – and that system was used in Ligue 1 to declare Paris St Germain as champions. The downside, however, is that some of the clubs displaced by such a method could mount legal challenge.
It the same method was used in League One, none of the automatic promotion or relegation places would be affected.
Leaked conversations which hit the headlines this week claim the league is now considering scrapping relegation if it cannot restart – although this has not been confirmed by the EFL itself.
It has been reasoned that automatic promotion places between the four divisions and National League could be honoured, and relegation places extended in 2020/21 to address the balance in 12 months.
Would Wanderers start with minus 12 points if they stayed in League One next season?
Short answer is, nobody knows. There is a strong argument to suggest they have served a full season of the transfer restrictions given to them for going into administration, and therefore they should start on par with everyone else next season.
But equally, if they were to start next season on minus 12, the club should theoretically be in a more stable position than it was 12 months earlier, when it had only half a dozen senior players on the opening day at Wycombe. In that instance, fans may feel more confident of overturning the deficit.
Are players returning to training on May 16?
The situation is likely to be reviewed in the next week, depending on what the Government decide to do with lockdown.
At present, the EFL has told clubs not to return until May 16 – with players effectively put on annual holiday. Some clubs – including Sunderland – have placed their players on furlough.
Wanderers have declined to comment on their plans to reduce players’ wages thus far, although senior management are known to have taken a significant pay cut and all non-football staff have been placed on temporary leave.
The club expect to have a few weeks to resume normal training and to recall relevant staff if the EFL give the go-ahead.
What happens to the 15 players currently out of contract at the end of June of games are played in July?
It appears that clubs will be given individual scope to renegotiate short-term deals IF they wish.
Wanderers have more players out of contract than anyone else in League One – and it has been part of the problem as they sought to reduce wage outgoings in the last few weeks.
FIFA have relaxed contract rules, which would allow players to sign one or two-month deals, but clubs will not be able to force their players to play beyond June 30 without a new deal, or agreement from the player himself.
As Wanderers’ league position is unlikely to alter if the season is resumed, it presents a unique challenge for the club’s owners on whether to invest money in extending contracts across the board, or to rely on the handful of senior professionals whose deal does run in 2020/21 with a selected number of new deals. This also applies to the management team, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, who also face contract negotiations this summer.
When will fans be able to come back to the University of Bolton Stadium?
The EFL’s current guidance is for clubs to prepare to play the rest of this season without fans – but unofficial news which emerged this week claimed that it could be January before crowds are allowed back in.
The answer will be entirely dictated by the Government and its strategy on mass gatherings. That, in turn, will be affected by how the virus spreads once lockdown measures are relaxed and whether there are further ‘waves’ which require intervention.
Wanderers have drawn up provisional plans based on the advice currently being given by the league and Government for playing behind closed doors, and reopening the training ground at Lostock – but they admit it is subject to change.
How will fans be able to watch games if they are played behind closed doors? And will season ticket holders get them for free?
The EFL has pledged to make all games available via the iFollow streaming service, or an equivalent, and if stadia are to remain empty for several months it could be that clubs sell season tickets based on a digital subscription for a given length of time.
For Wanderers fans who have already paid money to watch the last five home games of the season, the club say they are investigating ways in which they can be recompensed.
Is it right that football should resume?
This is a burning question within the game right now – and though Wanderers have said they would tow the EFL’s line if games are to resume, there are several people inside the club who are conflicted about the idea of using coronavirus testing kits that could be better used elsewhere on the front line.
Estimates on the number of tests needed, and the costs involved, differ wildly.
Wanderers are in the unique position of having an on-site integral hotel, and a testing station based outside the stadium, but the ethical argument for football returning while other businesses are still closed is one that will rumble on for some time.