There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.
The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end.
Peterborough are a two headed beast made up of owner Darragh MacAnthony and director of football Barry Fry. Fry, if you need reminding, once brought himself to near bankruptcy buying Peterborough before finding that he hadn’t bought them at all. In 2018 he was fined £35,000 and banned from football for betting irregularities. MacAnthony re-employed Fry, who would surely be unemployable in any other business, when the ban ended. MacAnthony himself was in court in 2012 accused of ‘theft by swindle and misappropriation of funds’ and was once forced by a court to pay an ex-employee nearly £160,000 in unpaid commission.
The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.
MacAnthony announced via Twitter that he was speaking on behalf of a number of teams, including Oxford, in saying they wanted to play. Oxford confirmed that this is their preference though they’ve yet to confirm whether they support some of MacAnthony’s other plans such as forcing teams to forfeit games or suing anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let’s not forget that Oxford are largely unaffected by almost all scenarios being suggested, so a neutral position is probably more favourable than promoting one so obviously biased.
For example, Southend’s owner Ron Martin has called for the season to be voided for the purposes of ‘sporting integrity’. By extraordinary coincidence, voiding the season would save Southend from relegation. Southend are sixteen points from safety and may even be caught by Bolton who started with no players and minus-12 points. But, Martin argues, by not playing the remaining games we would never know if Southend could suddenly find title winning form, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it?
OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID.
Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.
If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.
Only in the last few days have the EFL finally provided a framework for resolution. But, if the Oxford Vaccine Group can start developing a vaccine for Disease X – an unknown virus which will cause a pandemic before it happens, you might think that the EFL could have come up with a democratic method for resolving ‘Critical Issue X’ – a massive unknown problem which would affect the entire league. It seems not, there appears no established decision-making protocol for proposing or choosing possible resolutions, it’s taken weeks to come up with one inviting the shysters and vagabonds into the vacuum.
Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.
What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.
There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.