Dispute Resolution

“Unprecedented!” is the word on most people’s lips and on social media. It is uncontroversial that the global health effects of the Coronavirus are indeed ‘unprecedented’.

The word is also being frequently used on the back pages of newspapers, when discussing the impact of the pandemic on the conclusion of the football season, however. How to conclude football leagues in the UK is the thorny issue being considered by league organisers, with matches in Scotland and England being suspended until further notice.

Liverpool are an impressive 25 points clear of second place in the English Premiership. Manchester City could mathematically overtake Liverpool, though, to deny them their first league victory for thirty years. Things are far tighter in the Scottish Premier League. Celtic sit atop the league, but only 13 points clear of Rangers, who have a game in hand.

How to conclude the league – including determining champions, European qualifying places, relegation – without all matches being played is a subject of heated debate on football phone-ins and in the boardrooms of the league authorities. Any decision requires to balance logistics and immediate health & safety concerns, against economic, cultural and sporting integrity interests. Fans and lawyers await those decisions with anticipation.

The use of the word ‘unprecedented’ in the footballing context calls to mind the cry of the squat, balding Vizzini in the movie “The Princess Bride”, “Inconceivable!” Whilst we get the gist, it may not be the most appropriate adjective.

There is now some precedent as to how other sporting leagues intend to conclude their own seasons.

In Scotland and Wales, the domestic rugby season has been declared null and void. One team, Biggar, have already announced they will appeal that decision. The decision denies them promotion to the top domestic league from the league below, where they held an unassailable lead over second placed Heriots.

The professional rugby teams in Scotland and Wales, as well as Ireland and Italy, await a decision on how the Pro 14 season will conclude, however.

In England, the automatic relegation of Saracens requires a team to be promoted from the league below. That league has not yet concluded. The RFU have announced that Newcastle Falcons will take that honour on the basis of the “best playing record formula”. Falcons are ahead of Ealing, who could have mathematically overtaken Falcons. Ealing are “taking legal advice”.

In English football, the Premier League has apparently ordered clubs to talk about the option of the league being ‘curtailed’ instead of made ‘null and void’, in the hope of obtaining ‘legal protection’ from a rebate on their TV deal with broadcasters.

Further afield, the football leagues in Europe are also mindful of the same economic risks. The leagues in Germany and the Netherlands will be played to conclusion, if they can re-start in June. The Belgian league has not yet concluded, but Bruges are to be crowned champions. This may not be controversial as they were 15 points clear with one match yet to be played.

However the football authorities in the UK determine to conclude their leagues, there are likely to be furious debates. These will take place on social media platforms amongst disgruntled fans of one team or another. The debates are also likely to be heated in the Courts across the jurisdictions, challenging the decision making process.

Craig Watt