Mee on Premier League captains creating #PlayersTogether to help NHS during coronavirus crisis: 'We want to do our bit'

Ben Mee, the Burnley captain, paused for a moment and then explained, in simple terms, why 20 Premier League captains joined forces to create the #PlayersTogether campaign that will see players from English football's biggest clubs donate a portion of their wages to help front-line workers during the coronavirus crisis.

"Ultimately, the vast majority of footballers are working-class lads with a social conscience," Mee told ESPN. "We want to do our bit by doing what we can to recognise the contribution of people in the National Health Service (NHS) and other essential workers during tough times for everybody."

Premier League footballers know the price on the ticket. Play for a big club, earn the kind of money most people can only dream of and, when criticism is dished out, be prepared to take it from all sides. During the coronavirus crisis, players throughout the Premier League, from Arsenal through to Wolverhampton Wanderers, have been bracketed together and singled out as needing to do more at a time when many members of the population have been forced to take pay cuts, defer their wages or accept being furloughed by employers as a result of the financial impact on the economy of society being forced into lockdown.

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Two weeks ago, the players found themselves at the centre of a perfect storm. Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United announced they would furlough non-playing staff, and use taxpayer money to pay them, at the same time as leaving their players' salaries untouched. That move prompted Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary of State for Health, to urge Premier League footballers to "play their part" and accept pay cuts. Liverpool then also announced plans to furlough staff, but the Premier League leaders and Tottenham subsequently made a U-turn after a public backlash.

Talks between the Premier League and Professional Footballers' Assocation (PFA) about a league-wide 30% pay deferral remain ongoing, and some clubs are taking their own steps by speaking to their players, but Hancock's intervention prompted a wave of criticism towards the players, who were seen to be doing nothing.

"Matt Hancock's comments didn't help," Mee told ESPN. "But the players had already been talking between ourselves, at clubs and with mates from other teams, about what we could do as a group.

"Clubs and players do lots of charitable work in the community that goes unseen every week of the year, so it was inevitable that we would do something to help during this crisis because many of us have friends or family who are affected by what is happening. My brother works on the trains and is classed as an essential worker, so he is directly involved in the national effort, while I have cousins in the Fire Service.

"So the players have come together to help do some good, rather than act as a response to criticism for doing nothing."

The #PlayersTogether initiative has become the focal point of what Premier League players are doing, however, during the crisis.

It began with a WhatsApp conversation between Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, Manchester United's Harry Maguire and other England players, about how to do something as a collective. Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta and Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel were also prominent as various groups of players connected with others before the group of captains joined forces to become #PlayersTogether.

"I had a call from Jordan, asking if I fancied getting together to discuss charitable donations," Mee said. "The intention was for football to do something positive and we took it from there.

"Other players spoke and then the group came together. There is obviously rivalry within the Premier League and not all players know each other, but there is a respect between us all and, at times like this, there is no room for animosity. It is about pulling together."

Sources have told ESPN that Henderson was the driving force in the talks, with the England midfielder speaking to every Premier League captain to seek their support. The Liverpool player remains coy about his involvement, however, with senior figures at Anfield telling ESPN he was only a cog in the wheel. Mee has confirmed Henderson's contribution to ESPN, but no player has emerged as a front man for the #PlayersTogether group, who announced their intentions with a synchronised post on Instagram on April 8.

"#PlayersTogether is about we, as players, collaborating together to create a voluntary initiative, separate to any other club and league conversations, that can help get much-needed funds to those that need it right now," the statement read. "To try and help, along with so many others in the country, make a real difference."

The group's stated intention is to raise substantial funds for NHS Charities Together (NHSCT), an umbrella organisation for more than 150 registered NHS charities. The scheme will help NHSCT swiftly grant funds to the front line of the battle against COVID-19.

How much the players will donate remains to be seen. Sources have told ESPN that some players are uncomfortable with an expectation or obligation that they should contribute financially, but Mee insists that the initiative is purely voluntary.

"There is no pressure on any player to donate," Mee said. "Lots are willing to do so, that's been pretty clear from the outset. The reaction has been fantastic. But many foreign players contribute financially to their communities back home and we completely respect that they may wish to prioritise that and continue to do so. Others have their own charitable foundations.

"There is also no suggested amount for donations. Thirty percent of monthly salary has been mentioned in the media, but that may have been confused with the Premier League and PFA talking about a 30% wage deferral. We have not come up with any number. It is up to every player on an individual basis, but I think we can guarantee that there will be a good amount in the pot at the end of it."

Once life returns to normal and football resumes after this crisis has subsided, footballers may emerge with their reputation enhanced and supporters perhaps less quick to criticise and condemn. But planning for that day to come still seems clouded by uncertainty.

"I go out for runs and have a bike at home," Mee said. "But it's difficult when you don't have a date to focus on.

"The priority for everyone now, though, is to get through this and, hopefully, footballers can help people are having a tough time of it."