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Manchester United captain Harry Maguire leads squad in donating part of wages to charity – more Premier League clubs must follow

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire leads squad in donating part of wages to charity – more Premier League clubs must follow
A reported 30% pay cut agreed by the Manchester United squad seems to have been a turning point for Premier League clubs in the rancorous debate about the financial sacrifices football should make during the Covid-19 crisis.

At the end of a week full of contention about the responsibilities held by football clubs, owners and players during what is becoming an economic crisis for communities and sport, the news that Manchester United’s players are willing to donate a sizeable chunk of their wages to charity has precluded a procession of clubs following their idea.

Typically seen as symbols of gratuitous excess, the perception of Premier League players threatened to fall as sharply as gate receipts have during the suspension of the top flight when government leaders called upon top-level players to take a pay cut less than 24 hours before Maguire’s intervention materialized.

In a surprisingly specific remark demonstrating how football is frequently used as a yardstick by which to make earning comparisons, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, singled out elite players in England as figures who should be taking both the lead and the hit to their huge incomes.

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Although the logic of namechecking football seems as arbitrary as choosing any other profession in which companies and high-profile employees earn handsomely, Hancock’s words emphasize how poorly football as a whole has fared at elucidating its positive, generous side in recent days.

The prospect of a public relations disaster for the game accelerated in earnest on Monday, when Newcastle – owned by Mike Ashley, the billionaire whose Sports Direct empire had already drawn criticism over accusations that it had sidelined the health of its staff – applied to put all of its non-playing staff on furlough.

Pursuing a government scheme that pays 80% of staff wages while the pandemic effectively prevents them from operating, as many critics have observed, is not a good look for organizations bankrolled by the public, the most lucrative league ever to have existed and some of the wealthiest figures in the world.

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Greater outrage followed on Tuesday when Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy encouraged clubs and players to take pay cuts while announcing that 550 non-playing staff would be furloughed by last season’s Champions League finalists.

The timing of the statement, arriving at the same time as the club’s annual report revealed that Levy had earned a combined salary and bonus of almost $8.5 million for the previous financial year, was as unfortunate as it was tone-deaf. Almost all of the focus fell on Levy – and, by association, those in charge and on the pitch at clubs, whose earnings are generally at the opposite end of the scale from other staff. The notion of togetherness in trying times seemed distant.

As German clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund quietly performed pay cuts and the likes of Maurizio Sarri and Cristiano Ronaldo agreed a four-month freeze alongside the rest of the playing staff at Italian side Juventus, Levy’s warnings about protecting the “football ecosystem” failed to make English clubs look like they cared about much more than their own balance books.

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Players, coaching staff and management at second-tier leaders Leeds did the right thing by taking voluntary wage deferrals to secure the wages of non-playing staff, but the situation at Barcelona, whose playing staff had to offer assurances that they had always intended to take their 70% pay cut announced on Monday, demonstrated how suspicions of greed need to be snuffed out with decisive action.

Maguire, the United captain and England center-back, is believed to have earned agreement from the squad at the Premier League’s richest club after sending a message suggesting that each player should donate 30% of their wages to Manchester hospitals, which are likely to come under intense pressure when admissions as a result of the virus peak during the coming weeks.

The rest of the Premier League now appears to have followed suit, with clubs launching consultations to agree the same cut alongside a donation of more than $24 million to the country's National Health Service.

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That is a good start. Relatively small gestures by clubs can have a positive effect when they are communicated clearly. While Bournemouth furloughed 50 non-playing staff, coach Eddie Howe became the first Premier League manager to publicly announce a salary reduction, and Brighton’s chief executive and technical director joined boss Graham Potter in taking a pay cut.

“We are in a really difficult situation with a global pandemic ongoing and we want to try and do the right thing as a collective, as a humanity,” said Albion’s head coach. “I am pretty sure football will come to those same conclusions.”

Potter implied that his players have already made financial sacrifices during the crisis, hinting at the reluctance among many professionals to seek attention when they make donations or take pay cuts.

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Potter's call for cohesion was a contrast to the PR misstep that Gordon Taylor, the outgoing head of the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), became embroiled in when he vowed to block wage cuts.

Clubs and players should be entrusted with making the right decisions rather than having their hands forced. More importantly, they must be seen to make the call themselves. Talks between the PFA, Premier League and English Football League (EFL) have reportedly broken down, but the priority must surely be to avoid a standoff of the scale football in Brazil is currently facing, where clubs have rejected wholesale wage bill reductions and are now being threatened with legal action by the governing bodies.

Hancock's passing mention has sparked a predictable war of words. Some players have justifiably taken umbrage, asking why politicians are not publicly appealing to the thousands of people in England whose earnings eclipse those of even the highest paid players.

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Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend rightly pointed out that footballers are “easy targets” and said he had “never been more proud” to be a part of the charitable work his teammates were taking part in behind the scenes. His insights into some of the steps players are taking – made only in response to the headlines Hancock's words created – echo Potter's and testify to the depth of unseen support that could now be unified.

"It's now up to the players how to respond,” said broadcaster Gary Lineker, offering a voice of reason. “Let's give them a chance to respond before this hugely judgemental pile-on that we always get nowadays. My inkling is that footballers will take pay cuts. I think we need to be a little bit patient with them.'

It fell to a 22-year-old, England forward Marcus Rashford, to show some of his seniors in suits the merits of putting morality first, working with a charity to ensure free school meals continue for 400,000 children.

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Rashford’s words – discussing on national television how important school meals were to him during his childhood – spoke louder than percentages and did far more for the game, although the Premier League's new £125 million fund for the EFL must be used to ensure that no clubs further down the divisions go out of business in the coming weeks.

Those discussions can go on. Ideas like Maguire’s must be celebrated and extolled. While football stands still, acts of goodwill will be remembered when it returns.