Yes people complain. Yes, most journalists I know prefer to steer clear. But when they do, tagging sober headlines on top of serious web stories, their articles invariably fail to gain the same traction as, let’s say for example, ‘10 amazing things Sheffield United’s players have never bought from Greggs.’
A cursory glance at the most well-known news aggregation site suggests the problem has got worse, particularly in footballing circles, during the coronavirus crisis. With fixtures still suspended - and most players leading pretty mundane existences at home - there has been no shortage of cribbing going on while many of those pieces appearing at the top of the charts are effectively a selection of cobbled together Tweets. ‘United fans react to pundit’s disrespectful slur’ or ‘Blades followers rage at this shocking snub’: You get the drift.
The decision of some countries to declare their domestic seasons null and void - or explore ways of deciding who finishes where other than results - has been manna from heaven for these cyberspace teases, who dress seductively to grab folk’s attention before revealing they are wearing manky old knickers or y-fronts underneath.
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To be blunt, whatever the chief of the Dutch FA says about the Premier League’s chances of restarting next month is really of no consequence. The same goes for those at the Bundesliga’s HQ too, although their top-flight competition now seems to be working to a similar timetable to our own. Why? Because when it is safe to restart here won’t be decided in Zeist or Frankfurt. That decision will be taken in London, when health experts and economists decide it’s right to do so. Even they, because Covid-19 doesn’t follow orders, can’t predict anything with too much confidence. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise are, not to put too fine a point on it, chasing internet hits and insulting their readers’ intelligence.
What is certain is that calls to draw a line under the present campaign will gather momentum following recent developments in France, where the Prime Minister has forced leagues to take this course of action by declaring major sporting competition can not be staged until September at the earliest. This decision came after administrators in Holland and Belgium decided to wipe everything that has happened over the past eight months or so from the record books.
By doing so, those two nations, for whom I have the greatest respect, have effectively undermined the integrity of their flagship tournaments and those below too. Clubs set to be promoted have had their dreams dashed, those destined for relegation granted an undeserved reprieve and the champions elect seen their achievement sullied when there really was no need. Presumably both still want to send teams into next term’s Champions and Europa leagues? If the seasons have been annulled, how can they do this? Without resorting to the farce that is using ‘sporting merit’ calculations to decide who ‘finished’ where.
United’s exploits since August reveal why such methods are a farce. Having been told they were too inexperienced, too tactically naive and too limited talent wise to survive at the highest level, Chris Wilder’s side had climbed to seventh when the season was mothballed. Oh, and they’d reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup as well. Even those who seek to preserve the 2020/21 schedule by wrecking the 2019/20 one, even though it is over two thirds through, can not deny those facts prove sport is not an exact science. So efforts to make definitive judgements based on mathematics are a complete waste of time.
Considering the issue of which teams those domestic associations whose seasons are not completed send into Europe reveals another huge and potentially expensive problem. If there is no title winner, then there is also no one who came second, third, fourth and so on. I’ve heard advocates of this step argue the aforementioned ‘sporting merit’ principle can decide who deserves to go. The trouble is, none of them actually explain what sporting merit actually is. It certainly can’t be average points gained over the course of the season. Because, legally speaking, that season didn’t happen. So is ‘sporting merit’ average league placings over, let’s say, a five year period? Well, that wouldn’t be fair on a club like United, who have only just been promoted but were on course to qualify. Neither does that adhere to the qualification rules the associations in question have previously agreed upon, nor those of UEFA themselves. And if teams from countries who go down the ‘null and void’ route take part in the Champions and Europa leagues next term, unless they win this year’s versions should they carry on, then that suggests results which we’re told are no longer valid actually sort of are.
Confused? Yes, I am too. Which exposes the weakness of this stance.
Surely, as Wilder and his defender George Baldock have argued, it is better to see this campaign through to completion and then, if that does cause a problem for the one that follows, simply devise a programme which means it can be shortened or rushed through without compromising its fairness or probity?
Simple is usually best. And this is the simplest course of action.