Melanie McDonagh

Footballers’ response to coronavirus: self-delusion or cheek?

Footballers’ response to coronavirus: self-delusion or cheek?
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Last week I was put on furlough from my job, which was – in a way – quite exciting, invoking images of sturdy sailors on shore leave (my grandfather, who was a sailor, had his own approach to this; jump ship from a vessel in port if he fancied a change). Anyway, the largest bit of my present work is to review art exhibitions and since there aren’t any exhibitions to review, and there’s a limit to the number of times you can exhort people to have a look at the Hermitage online, I could kind of see the point.

But now I’m thinking that I was actually dreadfully short sighted, not to say, selfish. Instead of acquiescing in what seemed like an obvious necessity – over which I had no choice whatsoever – what I should have done was invoke the greater good. How, I should have asked, was the NHS going to function if it is denied the tax revenue from the 20 per cent lost off my salary? (The Government is kindly paying the rest.) Admittedly, on my present rates, that would probably cover a couple of packets of surgical gloves a day for a surgery for a week, but no matter; it’s the principle. We mustn’t be selfish.

I should, moreover, have made clear that I intended to spend a sizeable proportion of that 20 per cent of salary on a good cause, preferably NHS related. I might, say, have donated a fiver to some coronavirus helpline. Moreover, I would have made extra clear to the many people in my circle (at present amounting to my family), the importance of social distancing. I might even have set an example to others by applauding NHS workers especially vigorously from the window of my flat on Thursdays. It all helps, you know.

Except I didn’t. I lumped it because I had no choice and anyway, I could see the point. Just as I am lumping the loss of other income, notably from doing theatre reviews – if there aren’t any theatres, you can’t review the plays. For that there’s no compensation. And obviously there are any number of people who are simply left to explore Universal Credit because they have no income whatsoever.

But one group is taking a much more robust approach to cuts. The Professional Football Association has taken a dim view of the Premier League’s suggestion that footballers in the top clubs take a salary cut of 30 per cent because there isn’t much live football happening right now – all Premier League matches have been postponed until, at least, the middle of May. Yesterday, in what sounded like an amusing conference call, the PFA more or less told the Premier League where it could put its proposal.

In a particularly choice argument, the union observed that, ‘The players are mindful that as PAYE employees, the combined tax on their salaries is a significant contribution to funding essential public services – which are especially critical at this time.’

Oh right. So it’s in the interests of us all that footballers be paid as much as possible so the tax take for the NHS is as large as possible? Premier League players are paid on average £3.5 million a year, so that’s good. Bear that in mind, everyone, for the next time you look for a pay rise: let the boss know that the more you’re paid, the more tax you pay and the more the NHS gets. Win, win, as the England team would say.

The argument was, in fact, altruistic all round. The Premier League had promised, as part of the deal, to pay £20 million towards the NHS. Nah, said the players; not enough. They’d be doing way more through their own charitable efforts, advertised through their agents and PR people.

It’s hard to know whether it’s the self-delusion or the cheek of these young men that’s most remarkable. From a civilian point of view it seems to me that if football games aren’t on, then players can’t play, and club takings go down along with television revenue. And if players do lose £500million in pay, on account of not being able to do their job, well that still leaves quite a bit from the remaining 70 per cent. If they want to make donations to the NHS, go ahead, but it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not they should take a pay cut, especially when other club staff are on furlough.

In this mesmerising display of greed, avarice and cant, Gareth Southgate – who even I know – has quietly said he’ll take the cut of 30 per cent, which makes the rest of them look even more venal. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Oh.