Premier League clubs are concerned about supporters gathering outside stadiums if the season resumes and fear football will be blamed if breaches of physical distancing guidelines result in a rise in coronavirus cases.
Although the government this week declared its desire to see football back “as soon as possible”, it is understood a range of potential complications will be raised when top-flight clubs hold a pivotal meeting on Friday to discuss how to complete the season.
Several clubs are worried about the public gathering outside stadiums where games are taking place behind closed doors, and there are reservations about how to solve contract issues involving players, the capacity for testing, and whether playing in neutral venues would be an artificial construct.
Many issues have not yet been properly discussed, with one official saying clubs remain in the dark over a restart plan, and that Friday’s meeting will be key to finding a path towards a potential resumption in mid-June. Yet with some clubs questioning whether the government is trying to use football as a distraction amid criticism of its Covid-19 strategy and tensions over the lockdown, there is a growing feeling that the Premier League’s return could have unwanted consequences.
Several clubs fear the prospect of mass gatherings outside stadiums, or supporters meeting in homes to watch games, and there are concerns that even playing at neutral venues may not dissuade fans from travelling. Worries also surround supporters moving into public spaces to celebrate major victories, and one club questioned whether it would be possible to stop people playing football in parks if the professional game is back on television screens. Clubs do not want to become scapegoats.
Ultimately the league’s approach will be informed by the government and medical experts. There is no desire to return before it is safe and although Premier League sides are watching with interest as the Bundesliga prepares to resume on 9 May, they know there is more capacity for testing in Germany than in the United Kingdom. Clubs do not want to take tests from the NHS or key workers. One club said fans had contacted them to express concerns about restarting the season.
The Premier League has reportedly advised clubs to consider recalling players and staff who have travelled abroad, with a return to training on the horizon. But there are issues around the safety of players and other essential personnel to be resolved. One solution is for clubs to quarantine themselves within St George’s Park or play games at training grounds but some teams are worried about eradicating home advantage or feel playing at neutral venues would hurt competitive integrity.
The emerging picture is that a consensus across the league is yet to be achieved, with the clubs most determined to finish the season wondering whether self-interest is behind some concerns raised by others. Where there is widespread agreement is on the issue of how to deal with players whose contracts run out on 30 June. Clubs fear being exploited by agents if the season runs beyond that, leaving them in a weaker negotiating position in talks with players about and negotiations are needed over short-term extensions.
Discussions over what to do next will be shaped by the knowledge that Premier League clubs stand to lose up to £1.137bn collectively if the season does not finish and they have to pay back broadcasting money. One executive said clubs could each lose up to £40m if there are no games on television and around £10m if games take place without supporters. Mindful of the row in Scotland, there is an acceptance that scrapping the season could create a legal minefield if clubs are relegated or there is no promotion from the Championship.
The Premier League, along with other major sports, will meet senior officials from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the chief medical officer’s team on Thursday or Friday to discuss the steps required to get sport up and running again. Items on the agenda will include when physical distancing guidelines to allow contact in training and matches could be relaxed, how often players should be tested in the weeks ahead, and the number of medical staff, officials and media able to attend matches behind closed doors.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, and England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van‑Tam, are likely to attend the talks. However, it has been made clear to the cross-sport working group that any decision affecting sport will not happen in isolation.