On Tuesday afternoon, by the time Daniel Levy had announced that 550 of Tottenham’s non-playing staff would be taking 20% wage cuts, neither players nor their agents had yet heard anything about similar proposals for them.
This was the case right across the top division, although the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) spent Tuesday in discussions with the Premier League and the English Football League about potential reductions.
It is just as well, as it already looks set to be the next big football issue out of the coronavirus crisis.
The best-paid players may have to take a considerable cut to avoid the worst-case scenario for the game and potentially save it, as well as so many livelihoods. Lionel Messi, Barcelona, Juventus and some German clubs have already led by example here, and led the way.
Top-level wages are hard enough to justify in normal circumstances, but the implicit understanding is that is the nature of a free-market economy and a pursuit that so many people will pay for.
It’s impossible to justify when people literally cannot pay for it, the money stops coming, and that whole economy starts to break down.
It simply becomes obscene. It instinctively feels obscene that the Spurs players – with the threat of more clubs to come – still take home their immense wages, when everyone else has to take a pay cut and the casual staff get nothing. It’s all the worse if they are utilising the government’s furlough scheme at a time of emergency when resources are badly needed elsewhere. This has felt something of a low in the circumstances: a club owned by a billionaire tax exile may end up using taxpayers' money to save money, while the CEO himself earns £7m.
Livelihoods are directly affected, even in an industry that still has so much money swirling around the top end – especially if the season is completed and they do receive that broadcasting money. That’s all the more pressing when it is those wages, and the percentage of revenue they take up, that is directly putting clubs under such pressure. Some sources feel as many as four Premier League outfits are in danger of going into administration in the next few weeks if there isn’t some action. For all the money in the game, clubs are cashflow businesses, just like airlines, meaning huge problems when the cashflow stops.
Bigger questions should thereby be asked about the financial structuring of the game when all this settles. In the meantime, one aggrieved employee within football – speaking on the condition of anonymity – summed up a growing mood.
“Many clubs are going to be guilty of this, but it just seems insane that the male players still get paid tens of thousands a week while others lose their jobs or take a pay cut. Do all those players really need that at this time?”
One figure at a top club echoed that feeling.
“My whole department is in danger, but that seems incredible when our best player earns more in a week than all of them put together do in a year.”
Another source said: “It’s great that players are doing charitable acts, like buying loads of iPads for a hospital or whatever, but they’re still taking home hefty pay cheques each week.”
For their part, the huge number of charitable donations offered up by players would indicate they are individually much more willing to make sacrifices than people would assume.
“I can barely think of a player that wouldn’t contribute what he could afford to,” one agent says. “Players will put their hands in their pockets. People need to put the pitchforks away until they actually hear what players say.”
In that regard, there is actually a lot going on in any negotiations, with many complications. This is why, so far, it hasn’t been easy to unilaterally reveal pay cuts in line with announcements like Levy’s.
Some even saw the move by the Spurs chairman – and particularly specific lines in the statement – as a manoeuvre to force the PFA and Premier League into action. That happened on Tuesday, when terms were being discussed.
The general view is that most parties have been waiting for the PFA and League Managers Association to come up with a collective stance, from which everyone can then act. It offers insulation and protection.
Even in individual negotiations, after all, agents are wary.
“Some clubs will use the situation try to screw us,” one said. “That’s been a truth of football forever.
“These are ultimately bilateral contracts between individual players and clubs. It can be hard to find a collective stance. Players can of course talk to each other, and maybe find a solution at squad level.
“There might be a willingness to do so, but they’re still individual contracts, with labour laws of course there exactly to manage such situations.”
A further complication is that, within clubs, situations are not identical.
A percentage cut for a recently promoted academy graduate is very different for a recently purchased senior squad player. Messi explained this was precisely why Barca’s 70 per cent cuts were delayed, as they were “looking for a formula to help the club”.
“Some players can take a 50 per cent cut and still be on £35,000 a week,” one agent says. “Another player might be on £800 a week after his 50 per cent hit. So it really isn’t straightforward.
“The PFA are currently discussing terms. I think people would be surprised by the generosity of players.
“I think it’s reasonable for most clubs and I’d be a bit embarrassed of a player who wouldn’t take a cut. The issue really would be a club with a billionaire owner asking a player on a relatively modest wage to take a cut. In terms of players chipping in for non-playing staff, I’d support that too. But the majority would agree to cuts.”
On Wednesday, the expectation is the situation will change. There is probably a moral imperative that it does.