Arteta warns that players are starting to crack under the pressure. But will anything change?

By Tony Attwood

There are two ways to imagine football as and when the current crisis is all over.

One is that everything picks up from where it left off, with the same competitions, the same number of games, the same financial situation, the same funding etc.  The other is that this crisis will cause a major re-think.

There have only been two previous crises in the history of professional football in England that have caused the suspension of the Leagues: the two world wars that the country fought.

In 1914, when war was declared against Germany, there was a feeling in the country that it would all be over by Christmas.   As a result the Football League decided to continue the 1914/15 season.  There was a major outcry in the media (owned by people who would never be seen dead at a football match, unless it was hob-nobbing by the royal box) and they launched a major campaign to get football stopped (while allowing horse racing, the “sport of kings”, to continue).

The 1914/15 season was played, but as with two previous seasons in recent history, was mired by match fixing allegations, this time primarily against Liverpool and Manchester United. Match fixing was proven, and players banned for life, although then forgiven if they signed up to serve their country.  Games were then used as recruiting opportunities (there was no conscription until 1917), and supporters were encouraged to enlist into battalions which included professional players of the club they supported.

Four war time seasons were played, in which players were not paid for turning out and clubs were allowed to use as many “guest” players as they wished.  After the war the two professional divisions were expanded by two clubs each, and a third division of southern based clubs was formed.  One year later the third division mutated into the Third Division (South), and a new Third Division (North) was formed.  The country was then decimated by the flu pandemic of 1918/9 but football continued through that without interruption.

At the outbreak of the second world war the lessons of the first war were remembered and the 1939/40 season was abandoned immediately, after three games, and was quickly replaced once more by regional wartime leagues.  Once again players were allowed to play as guests for other clubs (which enabled servicemen on leave and those not serving overseas, to play for whichever team was nearest to where they were based).  There was no professional football played between September 1939 and August 1946.

The resumption of football in each case was pretty much with football being the same as before, although this time there was no expansion of the league.

So will it be the same once the coronavirus pandemic is over?  It is interesting to note that before football was closed down recently, Mikel Arteta had warned that his players were starting to crack under pressure of their demanding schedule. He also warned that standards were certain to drop if clubs were not allowed to increase their squad sizes from the 25 maximum imposed at present.

He said that, “Something has to be done, because you can see players are cracking and cracking every season. You can sustain that for one season, two seasons, but after three or four seasons you end up paying the price and I think the quality at some stage will drop. But we have a history, a massive culture, here with the cup games and to go against that is difficult.

“For now, the FA has not issued any advice in relation to the virus, with the medical departments of individual clubs responsible for suggesting any special precautionary measures.”

There was in fact quite a bit of criticism of the way in which the FA did not issue any specific advice concerning the virus until the enforced shutdown came, leaving each club free to make its own arrangements.  The early statements about football continuing, and then about football being shut down for just a few weeks, now seem ill-advised, with those empowered to run the sport seeming to have no grasp of what was going on.  A very similar situation to 1914.

But what is now clear is that the schedule allowed for no interruptions, and even the abandonment of the summer competition proposed for 2020 is probably not going to allow enough time for clubs to recover.

So, as we noted above, after the first world war the number of professional clubs was doubled with the introduction of the Third Division north and south.  After the second war, football continued exactly as before.

With this interruption to football we find ourselves at a moment in which football has reached overload, with the game lasting 11 months a year, and competition after competition both for clubs and countries, filling the calendar.  It is an opportunity once again to reform, but there is no certainty that either the clubs or the organizations that run football, will actually be willing to grab the chance.

Greed and power politics may well be the winner, even after a shock to the system as massive as this one.