If you want to know the extent to which self-interest burns through competitive sport, overwhelming such elements as fairness, spectacle or public interest, consider the recent public declarations of the top team executive at Watford as England’s Premier League endeavors to complete its suspended 2019-20 season.
Scott Duxbury, Watford FC chairman and chief executive, wrote an opinion piece in The Times of London whose headline lamented the “devastating effects” of a plan to play the season’s final nine games on neutral fields rather than at each team’s home grounds. He insisted Watford would lose the inherent advantage of playing in comfortable surroundings at Vicarage Road for five of its remaining games.
He even, in the piece, discussed how Watford’s stunning 3-0 victory over runaway Premier League leader Liverpool was influenced by his squad playing that game at home.
There were 21,634 in attendance for the Liverpool game.
There will be zero when Watford plays again.
Actually, that should say “if” Watford plays again.
It is quite apparent that Duxbury would prefer there be no Premier League games contested at any venue to conclude the 2019-20 season, and don’t think that’s because of safety fears over the coronavirus pandemic. No, it’s the fear of relegation driving his concern.
Watford stands in 17th place in the Premier League, one spot above the three positions designated for relegation to the second division. If he had any faith in his team, in the essence of sport, he would want the Hornets to earn their place in the 2020-21 Premier League on the field, wherever that field might be located.
“How can the long-term future of clubs be determined under these fundamentally changed conditions?” Duxbury wrote. “How is there any semblance of fairness? To wave aside all the fears and concerns is too simplistic. Surely all 20 clubs must agree the fairest way forward to complete the season?”
This is a disingenuous contention, because Duxbury knows well that any opportunity to complete the Premier League season will be under fundamentally changed conditions.
What the 20 clubs must agree on first is — presuming it is prudent to proceed — the safest way forward to complete the season. As it is certain that the most important element of safety is to contest these games with no fans assembled in the stands, the only consequential aspect of home-field advantage will be muted for everyone. If the league's stewards determine it is easier to control the safety of one neutral site than 20 home stadiums, that should be the primary concern.
What is the advantage of playing at home absent the influence of a raucous crowd? The players know where the showers are? This argument should be beneath the dignity of someone holding such a prestigious position, especially in an endeavor where competition is the essence of the business.
What’s happening with the Premier League possibly could have some impact on U.S. sports trying to restart or launch their current seasons: the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, MLS or the NWSL. The Premier League needs 14 votes out of 20 on any proposal to make changes this profound; if Watford wins its petty argument, who is to say North American teams might not push for their own selfish concerns?
It is unfortunate, especially in a tightly contested relegation battle that shows Watford ahead of Bournemouth only on goal differential, the season halted with Duxbury’s team having played one more on the road than at home.
It’s more unfortunate for Aston Villa, though, that its team played one fewer game than the others in this battle. If Villa had played once more and won, it would stand ahead of both Watford and Bournemouth.
There is a perfectly wonderful English word not commonly used on this side of the Atlantic: whinging. It is so unfamiliar here that my own Microsoft Word spell-check is flagging it. But it’s a word, honest. It means, according to Google’s dictionary, “to complain persistently and in a peevish or irritating way.” Scott Duxbury knows the word. For the moment, it defines his Watford FC.