OLIVER HOLT: It is selfish and spoiled to squabble over relegation

OLIVER HOLT: It is selfish and spoiled to squabble over relegation as thousands lose their lives… how can they act as if this is more important than people’s suffering?

  • Scotland threatened to sue if Japan World Cup game was cancelled by typhoon
  • Suffice to say, there was little sympathy for them when they lost the match
  • Some Premier League clubs are now acting as if nothing is going on around them
  • Thousands are dying from Covid-19. Clearly, there are bigger issues at play here

Before the coronavirus hit, my previous experience of lockdown only lasted a couple of days. 

It was seven months ago during the Rugby World Cup in Japan and as Super Typhoon Hagibis approached Tokyo, everyone was told to stay indoors. 

For those of us in modern hotels, it was no great hardship, although buildings swayed in the violent storm like liners on an ocean swell.

Several matches fell victim to the natural disaster that October. Italy’s match with New Zealand was cancelled. England’s pool match against France was lost, too. 

My previous lockdown experience before coronavirus came in Tokyo at the Rugby World Cup 

And there were concerns that Scotland’s game against Japan in Yokohama would be scuppered, as well. If the game could not be played, it would count as a 0-0 draw and Scotland would be eliminated.

There was sympathy for the Scots, obviously. Going out without playing a crucial game would have been harsh. But given that people were dying and the typhoon was laying waste to swathes of the country, there was general agreement that there were bigger issues at play. 

When the Scots talked of suing the organisers if the game did not go ahead, there was a general feeling of horror that they could be so insensitive and disrespectful.

They played the game in the end and Scotland lost. Because of the way the Scotland Rugby Union had acted, there was, by now, very little sympathy for them at all. In fact, the World Cup organisers filed misconduct charges against them. 

Scotland, facing elimination, threatened to sue if their game had been lost to the weather 

The lesson was clear — a team threatening legal action during a natural disaster is not a good look. It is not a good look at all.

It looks selfish. It looks spoiled. And, yes, it looks insensitive beyond belief. It suggests a spectacular loss of perspective. Sure, the stakes were high. This was a World Cup and the Scotland players had worked hard to get where they were. But calling for the lawyers when the host country was in crisis? Acting as if this was more important than a nation’s suffering? Really?

There are, predictably, more than a few parallels with what happened then and what is happening now. Tens of thousands of people have been killed by the coronavirus in England and still some of our clubs are peopled with barrack-room lawyers shouting about the legal havoc they will cause if they don’t get the chance to play out the season and secure promotion or avoid relegation.

It is as if they have not noticed what is going on around them. It is as if they have not noticed that the pandemic has had a more debilitating effect on this country — and on sport — than any event since the Second World War. It is as if they think football exists in some sort of a vacuum and that it can march blithely on through the devastation laid out all around it.

The game was not cancelled and there was little sympathy for Scotland after Japan won

In its efforts to negotiate an awful situation none of us have experienced before, the top four echelons of English football appear to have decided that if the season cannot be completed, it should be settled on sporting merit and therefore finishing positions will be finalised according to either weighted or unweighted points per game, an average of points accrued so far divided by the number of games played.

As many have quite rightly pointed out, the system is not ideal. It has flaws. If we have to resort to it, it will throw up some harsh outcomes. In an unweighted points per game scenario, Aston Villa would be relegated from the Premier League even though they have a game in hand which, if they won it, would lift them clear.

In one of the weighted points per game systems, West Ham would be relegated even though they currently sit outside the bottom three. In League One, points per game would see Peterborough United drop out of the play-off places and be replaced by Wycombe Wanderers, who currently sit two positions below them.

At the bottom, Tranmere Rovers would be relegated despite winning their last three games and closing fast on clubs immediately above them. The same issues run through to the National League, where some feel Harrogate would have overhauled Barrow to earn the solitary automatic promotion spot had the season not been curtailed.

Lockdown is now causing Premier League squabbles from clubs like West Ham over relegation

It would be hard to blame fans, officials and players of all those clubs across the divisions for feeling hard done by if those scenarios played out.

The problem is that however unfair it may seem to a few clubs, there is no better solution. Resuming competition is the fairest and most desirable outcome but this is a sport trying to plot its way through to finishing a season when it may not be safe, or financially viable, to play on. If that is the case, points per game is the only realistic solution.

Some are still clinging to the idea of voiding the season but that has been dismissed as a sanctuary for the self-interested, the envious and the fearful. Voiding the season would have penalised success and rewarded failure, which is one of the reasons why, quite rightly, it is a solution not on the table any more. It would have been the worst of all options.

The Bundesliga is back now and even though it is a pale imitation of football with full stadiums, at least we still have the beauty of the game to watch. By the end of next month, we can at least hope that the Premier League and the Championship may be back in action, too, if players are satisfied that it is safe for them to resume.

In an unweighted points per game scenario, Christian Purslow’s Aston Villa would be relegated

If that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, finishing positions in those divisions will be decided on points per game, as League One and League Two are destined to be. It will not be ideal but most clubs have played more than 75 per cent of their season, so points per game can at least claim to give a decent representation of final tables.

Those who suffer will say it is not fair and they will be right. It is not fair. But is it fair that hundreds of thousands of pupils who were hoping to shine in their GCSEs or were relying on performing well in A-levels to get into university now won’t have the chance to do that? Is it fair that hundreds of thousands of conscientious workers have been placed on furlough?

We all know the answer to that. There is no perfect system to finish the football season if it cannot be finished on the pitch but the unpalatable truth for those who will be disadvantaged because of it remains the same, however much they complain or threaten the Premier League or the EFL with the law. Points per game is the best option we have got.

There is no perfect system to finish the football season if it cannot be finished on the pitch

A ruthless genius

I cannot help feeling slightly puzzled by the reaction of some people to Netflix’s documentary The Last Dance.

Some critics say it was a hagiography, but Michael Jordan was one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century so it seems entirely logical that, in a documentary about his career, a high percentage of people are going to be complimentary about him.

And did it really hide the unpleasant side of him, his bullying, his ruthlessness, his narcissism, his disdain for some of his team-mates? No. Jordan was a great player but not a particularly nice man. 

When you sacrifice as much of a normal life as he did for the game, when you drive yourself as hard as he did, when you chase success as hard as he did, it is fanciful to think you are going to discover a rounded individual beyond the greatness. Greatness in sport demands greatness in selfishness, too. The Last Dance illustrated both beautifully.

The Last Dance documentary showed Michael Jordan’s greatness demanded selfishness

What’s the difference between a beach and a football pitch?

So, people see groups congregating on the beach or in the park and they say it is disgusting and irresponsible and that it will cost lives. 

Then they read that some Premier League players don’t want to congregate on football pitches and they say it is disgusting and irresponsible and that they are behaving like prima donnas. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

I’m going round in circles…

When I lived in London, my favourite running route took me around Regent’s Park. I always, always ran around the Outer Circle anti-clockwise. I live in Oxford now and my favourite running route takes me round the University Parks. I always, always run around it clockwise.

Apparently, because of the effect of the Earth’s rotation, an athlete running anti-clockwise will have a slight advantage. But in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens and Paris, athletes ran in a clockwise direction.

Later, the rules were changed to anti-clockwise. I’m glad it’s not just me who’s confused 

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