Suppose you were on trial for murder, in a country where the death penalty was still applied. With the trial more than two-thirds complete – just a few more defence witnesses and the summings-up to go – suppose a virus put a halt to court proceedings, as jurors fell ill and social distancing made further hearings impossible.
How would you want the thread to be picked up when the court system could begin functioning again?
Three possibilities come to mind:
● The judge reaches a verdict based on the evidence heard so far
● The trial is resumed from the point at which it was interrupted as soon as it is possible to do so
● The trial is abandoned. A new jury is sworn in and the process begins all over again.
Surely the first option can be dismissed out of hand. Without all the evidence having been heard and, in cross-examination, tested, no final verdict is possible. Unfortunately, then, Liverpool cannot be awarded the Premier League title. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich cannot be relegated with 27-30 points each yet to be contested.
The third option also presents problems of consistency and fairness. Starting again does not move all the pieces back to where they were. In the courtroom analogy, a new jury might have other sympathies; witnesses might no longer be available; new information might have come to light. The trial could be quite different.
Regardless of your view of the concept of natural justice, or of Liverpool FC, for Liverpool to be denied the title arbitrarily would be grotesquely unfair. As the table stands with the league programme suspended, Liverpool need just two wins from nine games to be sure of the title; they have 27 wins from 29 at this point.
And so on down the leagues. In the Championship, Leeds and West Bromwich have pulled away in the automatic promotion places, as have Coventry in League 1. They and their fans would justifiably feel hard-done to if their efforts to March were expunged. At the darker end of the tunnel, poor Bolton are almost certain to be relegated from League One and Stevenage from League Two. Reprieves for them might condemn two other clubs next year.
But there is a quarter of the season outstanding and few issues are clear-cut. The problem with the second option is time. Nobody knows when football might resume. As things stand the Premier League has proposed fixtures from 2 May, but that seems optimistic. Beyond that point, the 2020/21 season will become a factor in calculations.
One idea offered as a potential solution is quite ingenious. The Premier League is apparently looking at the possibility of an accelerated finish to the season in conditions resembling an international tournament: all the clubs gathered in a small number of neutral locations, playing out the remains of the season behind closed doors.
They would hope to be able to do this through June and July. The close season, officially defined in FA rules as June, would thus be sacrificed. But everybody would arrive at the 2020/21 season in the same state of exhaustion. And the investments of time, effort, money, emotion etc in the 2019/20 season would not have been wasted.
It may not happen. First, the infection curve may not be sufficiently flat for anyone to embark on such a project with confidence. Second, complications may arise not only from the fitness and health of players but also from their registrations and contracts. The expectations of broadcasters and sponsors will also be a factor.
Even so, a continuation of the present season must be the fairest course. Even if it runs well into 2020/21. Clubs should be allowed to complete this season’s competitions on the terms under which they entered them; if those terms need to be adjusted for next season, so be it. No League Cup, perhaps, to free up mid-week nights; only one league fixture between clubs, to halve the length of the season; no winter break. If the terms are understood and accepted before the 2020/21 season begins, there should be no problem.
But the example of the play-offs gives grounds for doubt that the current season will be allowed to finish. The play-offs suggest that the people who run football have little regard for the time, effort, money, emotion etc invested in a season by a club and its supporters. Ask anyone whose team has ever finished in third place, streets ahead of fourth but obliged nonetheless to play three more games at the end of the season to gain a promotion it has already earned.