Alex Miller: Sheffield Wednesday's Josh Windass was within his rights to hit back at Matt Hancock - footballers are an easy target
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During the national coronavirus briefing on Thursday, health minister Matt Hancock was asked about the fact that, up until that point, Premier League footballers had not made a voluntary pay cut in the strains of national crisis.
As football counted the cost of a pause on matchday revenue, non-footballing staff on a fraction of the salaries, it was pointed out, had been furloughed.
Choosing not to point any finger of accusation at the mega-rich in general, Hancock honed in further on footballers. The City boys making millions from a spiralling economy, the faceless oligarchs and indeed the billionaire donors that contribute so generously to his party went unmentioned.
“I think that everybody needs to play their part in this national effort and that means Premier League footballers, too,” he said.
“Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice of going into work and have caught the disease and sadly died, I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.”
Few would argue he was wrong, of course. Anyone earning thousands of pounds a week should surely take a hit while lesser-paid, lesser-known colleagues are laid aside with a percentage of their pay.
But given this debate and indeed the original question itself was sparked by an open letter from another Government minister, a cynic might point out that it provided Hancock and co with a helpful distraction to growing criticism they had been ill-prepared for the virus. While PPE delivery to the NHS was delayed, the national conversation was momentarily pushed elsewhere.
The PFA and other relevant bodies were already in discussion as to how best administer a cut of sorts, providing the Government with an open goal opportunity to be seen to be forcing change.
That a verdict was slow to arrive was a PR gaffe at a generous best and more decisive action from the Premier League should have been taken much earlier. But still, two days on, footballers remain the only highly-paid section of society to have been questioned.
Recognisable faces up and down the football community chimed in to argue the fairness of their place in Hancock’s crosshairs. Gary Neville, who together with co-owner Ryan Giggs opened up free beds at his Manchester hotel to NHS workers, called it a “f***ing cheek”.
Gary Lineker spoke about a ‘judgemental pile-on’. Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend described footballers as an ‘easy target’.
“The health secretary, deflecting blame on to footballers, I don’t think that is right. His job is the responsibility of NHS workers,” Townsend said.
“NHS workers have been underpaid for years. Only 2,000 of them have been able to be tested for coronavirus. This is not right, these people are putting their lives on the line to try and save lives.”
Sheffield Wednesday’s Josh Windass registered his uncomfortableness at the situation, using social media to point out the good work of footballers such as Marcus Rashford in helping during the crisis while suggesting Hancock hypocrisy at not widening the debate to other mega-rich industries.
A backlash followed and Windass later responded: “For everyone tweeting me who clearly don’t understand, ‘overpaid’ footballers pay 40% tax 2% NI, Bill/Millionaire business owners pay 19% through their companies, well the majority anyway. And most footballers are probably if not most are definitely helping the NHS and Keyworkers.
“I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t take pay cuts. But it’s on all of us, not just certain people. In the meantime, the NHS and key workers are doing an incredible job.”
You can’t help but feel he’s got a point.
On Friday all top tier clubs announced they had “unanimously agreed to consult their players regarding a combination of conditional reductions and deferrals amounting to 30 per cent of total annual remuneration”.
Non-footballing staff at Sheffield Wednesday have been furloughed but owner Dejphon Chansiri has received praise for stepping in to ‘top-up’ the remaining 20 per cent of their salaries.
Last week the club reported that players and staff had kicked off a club charity push aiming to help vulnerable people harmed by the coronavirus crisis with a £20,000 start-up donation.
Club captain Tom Lees said: “The club, the squad and all staff are making individual donations and hopefully our contribution as a group can kickstart things off for the local charities and projects in the area,” while a club statement said: “Think the homeless, the hungry, the elderly, the visually impaired, the countless folk with all kinds of physical or mental needs, we are all affected in some shape or form and The Owls are giving something back in these most difficult of times”.
Donations from the wider ‘Sheffield Wednesday family’ have since pushed the figure closer to £25,000 and further donations can be made via www.swfccp.co.uk/covid-19-appeal/
Further to the likely 30 per cent pay cut taken to players by Premier League clubs this weekend, the league itself will provide £20m to support “the NHS, communities, families and vulnerable groups”. There have also been reports that Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has led a group of all 20 Premier League captains in discussions to donate to an NHS crisis fund, which was reportedly met with a “wholly positive response”.
At the time of writing a Government Minister is yet to publicly ask any other mega-rich industry to take a pay cut.