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The Covid Affect

When the 2019/20 season began, all that was considered by fans, clubs and anyone else connected with the game, was who would achieve and who would fail. Promotion, relegation, cup competitions, they were the hot topics, same as always. For those of us standing on the terraces supporting Crystal Palace Women, we were contemplating just how a second season in the Women’s Championship would shape up. Could second season syndrome be a factor, as we have seen so many times in the Premier League? Could the large overhaul of the squad cause a period of unsettlement? Could the change in on-field personnel see us soar up the table? Plenty of possibilities, as is the case every pre-season. What we never envisaged, was a global pandemic bringing the beautiful game, and the world, to a grinding halt.

As we know, back in March, the world as we know it started to change. Europe, in the form of Italy and Spain were starting to suffer heavily from the spread of the Coronavirus, and it was only a matter of time before the problem reached our shores. In those early days, no one had any clue what it would mean, or what would be required, so life continued to roll on. Then, with Lockdown starting to look more likely, the continuation of live sport came into doubt. After all, how could you prevent the spread of an invisible killer, when there are upwards of 60,000 sitting together in stadiums? Even so, it wasn’t until Arsenal Manager Mikel Arteta became infected, that the FA decided to act. On March 13th, all football was brought to a temporary pause.

The question then began to arise, as to whether this pause was temporary, or of it would be permanent, at least for the current season. The conversations of who might score on the coming Saturday, were replaced by talk of null and voiding the season, or ending on a points per game basis. Liverpool fans feared having their 30 year wait for a Premier League title extended, despite being two games from glory. Leeds fans feared their return to the promised land being ripped from their clutches after over a decade of absence. Up and down the country, there was a divide between those who had something to lose, and those who had something to gain from the possible outcomes. Clubs who have worked hard all season to get into automatic promotion, or the play offs, were suddenly facing the possibility of it meaning nothing, as an early end would force them to stay where they were. Meanwhile, relegation threatened clubs were seeing the idea that a null and void season would prevent them from the drop that they had struggled against all season.

On top of that, money became a big problem. If the season didn’t finish, then clubs were facing the possibility of having to return sponsorship and TV revenue. Lower league clubs had no choice but to put their players and staff onto the government furlough scheme. In the EFL League One and below, money was always scarce at the best of times, but with no games meaning no income, their hands were forced to follow suit of so many other businesses. Even mega rich clubs in Tottenham and Liverpool tried to use the scheme, until fan backlash made them do a U-turn. When talk of a return to action began, and Project Restart started to take shape, with it came its own struggles. Clubs in League Two quickly voted to bring their season to an end, a decision that had already been made in the National League and below. Points Per Game decided the relegation and automatic promotion spots, with just the Play-Offs to be played when action resumed. Why was this decision made? Because at that level, the clubs relied on matchday money to survive. The cost to put on games, and take players off of furlough, was too great when there would be no revenue generated on matchday by ticket sales, programme purchases, food sales etc. So, in these strange times, second placed Swindon were crowned League Two Champions, courtesy of their game in hand and the PPG process. It was a similar situation in League One, but the decision took longer due to a handful of clubs wanting to finish the season. In the end the majority won, and the season ended. Only the Premier League and Championship have returned to finish what they started.

Even so, we continue to hear about the possible financial repercussions on the men’s game due to Covid 19. It is likely that next season, whenever it starts, will do so without fans. So, what does that mean for those clubs in League One and below? Will they be able to start the season? Yesterday, Wigan Athletic were put into administration, and with it came the warning that several other clubs could be forced to follow suit. There is also expected to be a higher number of players without a club this summer than ever before. Clubs are having to lower wage bills, requiring cuts. Some of the Championship clubs, such as Charlton, have had to restart while missing players like Lyle Taylor, because they were leaving on a free and didn’t want to take the risk of injury that could prevent a better move. For lower league players, there won’t be a better move. Clubs at their level won’t be able to make the signings they normally do, and so it could leave a lot of people in limbo. Player fees could also plummet, with the available money for spending, just not being there anymore.

All of this, is just in the men’s game. The purpose of this article is me asking the question that so many sadly want to avoid, or wouldn’t even think of to begin with. What about the women’s game? The wealth of the men’s game has never transferred over to the women’s side, the gulf is vast. Transfers, sponsorship, gate receipts, television coverage, the men’s game has no idea how lucky it is with all these revenue streams compared to what the women get. So, if clubs in the third and fourth tiers of the English league structure could be facing financial meltdown and their possible end, then I began to worry what on earth this could mean for the women’s teams, who never had the luxury of higher finance to begin with.

The best way to find out, and then share that knowledge with others, was to speak to someone directly involved. Yes, I know, crazy right? Instead of going down the usual media approach of guesswork, rumours and make believe, I instead wanted to actually find out facts, and the truth, in order to give a glimpse into the effect that Covid 19 has had on the women’s game. So, I spoke with Paula Johnson, the General Manager of our beloved Crystal Palace Women, to gain an insight into how the last four months have been for the club.

Going back to the beginning of it all, namely March 13th, when all football events were brought to a halt, I asked when the club were first notified, and at the time, if any instructions were given as to how things might move forward?

Well we just knew it couldn’t carry on due to the government announcement of no mass gatherings etc. So, everything just came to a full stop. Up until that point I don’t think anyone knew what would happen going forward. I think everyone was in a bit of a daze.”

With the game on hold, I asked what initial actions the club had to take in regard to scheduled matches, travel plans etc.

We had one away match with a stay over against Sheffield. This had already been cancelled once due to weather so had to be cancelled for the second time. We were obviously destined never to play them away!! The other matches would have been at home or local. The one big disappointment was that our match against Blackburn Rovers was called off which should have been played at Selhurst Park. This is always a great day and the players really enjoy it too.”

With so many clubs in the men’s game, including Premier League side Norwich having to use the furlough scheme, I asked if the CPFCW players had to be placed on furlough to.

“We did place players on the furlough scheme under advice from our accountant. Everyone understood and were happy with the decision.”

At around the time that it was announced in that all Leagues below EFL League Two would be ended, the same decision was made regarding all teams below the Women’s Championship. I asked if any instructions were provided to the Women’s Super League(WSL) and Championship clubs as to how things may proceed for them, given at that time their leagues were still ‘active’.

“We were still having very early stage meetings with the FA at this point, and no decision had been made about our leagues yet. We were working through deadline dates and scenarios until each passed, and then looked at the next scenario etc.”

I then asked if at that time, the club had a preference as to whether they finish the season(playing) or it ends, and if there was a reason for this preference.

We were happy to end the season, purely from the financial point of view and also player welfare. The decision to end the league was very much based on player feedback in consultation with the league at the time – WSL and Championship. We have to remember, the Championship players have other jobs and so it makes it harder to isolate as a team. Some also work in the NHS or have vulnerable family at home.”

Eventually, the decision was made to end both leagues where they were, using the PPG process. This saw Aston Villa promoted to the WSL, while Liverpool were relegated from it. There would be no relegation from the Championship, meaning bottom placed Charlton were safe, while we finished in 7th place. I asked if the clubs were involved in this decision to bring the season to an early close.

Yes, the clubs were consulted over a number of meetings. The decision was based on their feedback.”

So, with the season over, the clubs were essentially in the same position as those of Leagues One and Two, with the season at an end and the prospect of no crowds or matchday revenue any time soon. Given that we keep hearing how several League One and Two clubs could be facing financial ruin, I asked Paula just how badly Covid 19 had affected CPFCW as a club, and its structure, given the lack of financial strength within the women’s game.

We are very lucky in that we do have the full backing from CPFC. Early on we were reassured by the club that before any decisions were made, to go to them first.It was very much a family club matter, as you would have seen in the press.What Crystal Palace have done for everyone involved in the club during this pandemic has been amazing, even down to the welfare of the local communities. However, going forward, playing without crowds will no doubt hurt us a lot, if not all the Women’s Championship teams in some way or other. Gate money on the day contributes to all club budgets.”

With Project Restart currently underway in the men’s game, and so far, proving a success in terms of virus control, it has us all keeping our fingers crossed that it will be the stepping stone for the game moving forward. If the Premier League season ends without issue, then we all hope it will mean the return of all leagues for the 2020/21 season. With that in mind, I asked Paula that should the Championship return come August/September, would preparations for it be the same as any other pre-season, or will Covid 19 force changes?

Without doubt, Covid will affect the way we approach things. Behind the scenes talk and player movement will be the same, but we are now having to work to FA and government protocols for returning to training. Until that is right, we can’t get on the pitch. Pre-season training will have to take on a different schedule, due to only being able to train in groups of 6 for the moment, and will no doubt be slightly delayed. However, we are all striving towards a July start fingers crossed, but the safety of all players and staff has to be priority, so all measures have to be put in place first.”

So there you are, a small insight into how Covid 19 has affected the women’s game. It has certainly taken its toll, and while our players have been unable to battle on the pitch, some have been battling Covid inside hospitals, in their full-time jobs. As of writing, there has been no announcement in regard to a possible start date for the new Women’s season. I do believe though, that Man City Women returned to training yesterday, which if it is the case, is certainly a positive step forward. Hopefully, a start date and fixture list will be on the horizon, giving everyone something to focus on and work towards. Sadly, the start will be without fans, which inevitably will hit the club hard. So, whenever that day comes that we are allowed to return to stadiums, I urge you all to do so, for both the men’s and the women’s game. How great would it be if the return of fans could see a huge bumper gate at Hayes Lane, giving the players the lift and backing they deserve, and perhaps a little financial boost to the club in the process. I know that I will be there, and I hope you will join me!

*All Photos Credited To Tara Hook Photography*

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