Former Newcastle and Brighton manager Chris Hughton believes English football is facing up to a huge crisis, with the immediate and long-term stability of the game under huge threat amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking exclusively to TEAMtalk, Hughton suggested the traditional structure of the English game may be changed forever by the events that will unfold over the next few months.
While top-flight clubs could conceivably cope with an extended period of behind-closed-doors matches, many Championship and a vast majority of League One and League Two clubs would be unable to remain as viable businesses without paying spectators and Hughton fears they could face a huge battle to survive.
“I almost feel guilty talking about what this all means for football because clearly they are far more important issues at stake here and hundreds of people are still dying every day from this virus in the UK,” the former Tottenham and Ireland defender said.
“Yet football has a big role to play in our society and it is not just the players and managers who are invested in it. We are talking about tens of thousands of jobs that could be at stake here, so we need to find solutions to the challenges football now faces.
“The bigger issue coming out of this has to be for football as a whole because I don’t see fans returning to matches for the next year and possibly until an effective vaccine is produced.
“For lower league clubs that rely on gate revenue, I just don’t see how they can sustain their business without spectators and you wonder how the game in England will look at the end of all this.
“Right now, the short term issue has to be with players and their contracts expiring the end of June. I’m sure an extension could be added to end this season if required, but a lot of clubs will have to change their decisions when it comes to renewing contracts and giving out one-year extensions.
“If lower league clubs are looking at a year or possibly two years without paying spectators, they will have to trim their costs down to the bare minimum and it may not be practical for them to play at all until this comes to an end.
“It could mean that thousands of footballers will be out of work at the end of June and there will be no clubs for them to sign for, which will be a massive issue.”
Hughton went on to suggest he would understand if players opted out of a return to action in the current climate, with Watford’s Troy Deeney among those who have not returned to training this week.
“I saw Man City striker Sergio Aguero expressing his concerns about playing and Dean Smith at Aston Villa has said some of his players may not be willing to return with the virus still at the levels it is at in England due to health issues like asthma,” added Hughton.
“We can all understand those concerns and it may be that clubs would have to give players the option not to play if they have reservations about themselves or possibly giving the virus to a family member.
“We are living in surreal times and I almost feel guilty to be sitting here talking about football issues when so many people are dying in the UK every day, but this is the sport we all love and we have to find a way to get it back in whatever form is safe for the foreseeable future.”