The government has ramped up the pressure on the Premier League by confirming for the first time that it expects them to help lower league clubs in peril.
The warning came from the culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who said that while he was “acutely aware” of the devastating impact of postponing the return of fans, he would also be “asking sports to help themselves – starting with the Premier League in respect of football”. That position is shared by Downing Street and was reinforced by the sports minister Nigel Huddleston, who told parliament on Thursday: “Where it can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways it can support itself, with the government focusing on those most in need.”
Those comments are likely to make many in sport nervous. There is still a faint hope in the sector that the government could ride to the rescue with a rescue package similar to the £1.5bn given to the arts in July. However the Guardian understands that nothing like that is on the table – and any help is likely to be in the millions not billions.
It is also unclear whether the government’s demands will cut any ice with the Premier League, with some clubs privately telling the Guardian they feel their first duty is to help non-playing staff keep their jobs during the pandemic. At any rate, any offer of assistance is unlikely to be imminent given it would have to first be approved at a Premier League shareholders meeting. Dowden also enjoys the strong backing of Downing Street, which is keen to see the top flight do more to provide financial support for EFL clubs in particular. Ministers and officials held meetings on Thursday afternoon to discuss how to sport deal with the effects of the pandemic crisis.
Meanwhile the Leicester Tigers chairman, Peter Tom, added his voice to those warning that having no crowds for six months threatens the future of English professional rugby. “This is a disaster for Premiership Rugby and all the clubs involved,” he said. “I’m very worried about what the future for English professional rugby is. Nobody will be able to sustain this.” The Rugby Football Union is expected to confirm that there will be no matches below Championship level before January “at the earliest”.
However the National League, which has warned that its season was under threat, was more bullish – saying that it hoped to announce a “critical financial support package very soon” which would enable it to start playing again on 3 October.
The government has also confirmed that an independent team of sport, health and technology experts has met for the first time to explore how fans could return to sports events. However speaking in the Commons, the shadow sports minister Alison McGovern blamed the government for not doing more during the summer to help sport.
“The government’s failures on track and trace have consequences for football clubs and we all want to know what the plan is to save the game we love,” she said. “So suppose, as has been indicated in the media, that the Premier League is not prepared to underwrite the rest of football, I’d like to know who then would be to blame when clubs collapse? Will it be the Premier League or will it be Conservative ministers speaking from this despatch box?”
Meanwhile Leyton Orient’s League Two fixture at Walsall on Saturday has been postponed in the wake of the majority of the their first-team squad testing positive for Covid-19. More than a dozen Orient players are thought to be self-isolating as per government guidance.