Players and clubs lack common ground in wage-cut talks amid Covid-19 pandemic

General view of inside the Turf Moor stadium before the match between Burnley and Arsenal in Burnley February 2, 2020. It is almost a month since a ball has been kicked in the Premier League, four weeks without a broadcast game or matchday revenue. — Reuters pic
General view of inside the Turf Moor stadium before the match between Burnley and Arsenal in Burnley February 2, 2020. It is almost a month since a ball has been kicked in the Premier League, four weeks without a broadcast game or matchday revenue. — Reuters pic

MANCHESTER, April 7 — With the best paid footballers in the world, billionaire club owners, under-pressure politicians and even a millionaire trade union leader involved, it is perhaps hardly surprising that talks on a blanket wage cut in the world’s richest league have yet to reach an amicable conclusion.

But what is worrying for those hoping to find an end to the deadlock in negotiations is that the two main sides — the clubs and the players, appear to be talking about two entirely separate issues.

The gulf is so wide that while talks are expected to continue, the most likely outcome, sources tell Reuters, is a series of individual club deals with players rather than a nation-wide pact.

In the talks, the Premier League clubs have asked for a “combination of conditional reductions and deferrals amounting to 30 per cent of total annual remuneration.”

The clubs say they need to reduce their wage-bill, temporarily, to help them cover their outgoings at a time when they have massively reduced income.

It is almost a month since a ball has been kicked in the Premier League, four weeks without a broadcast game or matchday revenue and with the risk that if the season is not completed, broadcasters could reclaim up to £760 million (RM4.05 billion) in payments to the clubs.

The clubs say they want the players to help limit the damage by taking a hit to their pay-packet. Premier League clubs spend an average of around 60 per cent of their income on salaries.

The average monthly salary of a Premier League player is around £240,000 with the top-earner, Manchester United’s Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea, making a reported 1.5 million a month.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), who represent players at all levels of the game, including low-paid lower league footballers, say that the players are willing to give up some of their income — but not to let club owners keep it.

“It’s not that they (the players) don’t appreciate the seriousness of what we are in,” union chief Gordon Taylor said yesterday.

“It’s that if their money is being affected, they want to know what’s happening with it, and they would like to have the choice of where it goes to.”

The clubs have been surprised by this response as they were not asking players to make donations, but to defer or cut their income. The league has agreed to make a £20 million donation to the NHS and local communities.

Lack of consultation

For their part, the union were upset that the league went public with that demand without, they say, enough consultation with the players.

“They feel like they are being bounced into something,” said one source.

The stance of the players has hardened since comments from Health Minister Matt Hancock, that players needed to take a pay cut and “play their part”, words which clearly struck a nerve.

The players — and former players in the media — have been quick to point out that they are indeed “playing their part” through individually supporting charities and the NHS.

After the most recent round of talks, the PFA even argued that a pay-cut for the players would actually harm the NHS as it would reduce their tax contributions.

If all of this appears unseemly to the public, at a time when Britain is battling a pandemic which has so far claimed 4,897 lives and dealing with a lockdown which has wounded the economy, the decision of some clubs, including Premier League leaders Liverpool, to seek public funds to pay their non-playing staff has done little to help.

Some of the players see such furloughing of staff as a way of putting pressure on them.

On the other side, there is frustration with the PFA from some clubs. The union draws the bulk of its income from a share in the leagues’ television deals and the 75-year-old Taylor is reported to be Britain’s best paid union leader with an annual salary of £2.3 million.

The options for the clubs are limited, however — unilateral imposition of pay-cuts runs the risk of players suing clubs at some stage for breach of contract and even becoming free agents.

There appears to be more willingness from the players to accept wage deferrals but, union sources say they would need to see financial information from clubs and guarantees that the withheld wages would be made up later.

Localised deals have already begun to be made at lower-league levels where the salaries, turnovers and profit-margins are much lower and the risk of clubs not surviving an extended delay to the season is much higher.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the public wrangling over money has done little to enhance the image of the game.

“Leaving the public purse to pick up the cost of furloughing low paid workers, whilst players earn millions and billionaire owners go untouched is something I know the public will rightly take a very dim view of,” wrote Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. — Reuters

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