The Premier League is to attempt to persuade authorities to allow matches at home stadiums, the first of several hurdles the competition will try to clear after the government gave hope that football could return in June.
As the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, talked of “momentum” behind Project Restart and new medical protocols were submitted to government, there was a sense the top flight might finally be coalescing around an approach for resumption. But after the fifth shareholders’ meeting since play was suspended in March plans still remain incomplete and, for the first time, the possibility of curtailing the season was discussed openly by clubs.
On Monday the government revealed its plans for easing the coronavirus lockdown. They included the possible resumption of “cultural and sporting events” which could “take place behind closed-doors for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact.” This would not be before 1 June and dependent on meeting the government’s five tests for reducing the spread of the virus.
The Premier League learned of the plans just as their shareholders meeting was coming to a close. The issue of playing matches at neutral venues and preventing crowds gathering at grounds was the greatest sticking point. Clubs in the bottom six were against it, claiming the absence of home advantage would distort the competition. But other clubs, Newcastle being one, were against it too. At the meeting, it was decided the idea could be revisited.
“I think everybody would prefer to play home and away if at all possible”, Masters said. “And I think it’s clear to see that some clubs feel more strongly about that than others. We’ve been talking to the authorities about the conditions in which we could get the Premier League back up and running and taking all that advice on board. But it is an ongoing dialogue.”
“I think some of our clubs would argue that, in relation to policing their own fans, they have a good relationship with them and they’re in a better position to control that. But this has to be a decision that’s come to mutually.”
Clubs are expected to have local discussions about the possibility of putting on games at their own ground. It is one of a number of pieces of ongoing work ;the most important remains agreeing medical protocols for the safe return of training.
The medical protocols have been worked on in conjunction with club doctors, some of whom have expressed concern about the contents, and on Monday they were presented to club officials. The League Managers Association and PFA were also briefed and the protocols submitted to government for their approval, with the expectation the further amendments may still be possible. For example, the league is yet to devise a protocol for practising safe contact training. A meeting with players is to follow on Thursday, getting their consent another huge component in keeping the plans for a restart on the road.
“Clubs are determined as part of the consultation process that [players’] concerns and questions are heard. They will be later this week”, Masters said. “We’re really just talking about return to training protocols. In isolation it’s a big decision. But the players have to be consulted properly.”
Asked if it were possible that players could veto plans agreed by clubs, Masters said: “We are not anticipating it and obviously, what we are trying to do is create the safest possible environment for a return to training for players, for managers, for their coaches and the other staff that need to be involved. We think we are going to be able to create that safe environment.”
Masters admitted, however, that the possibility of the season not being completed had been discussed by clubs and that the path towards any matches remained difficult.
“It was discussed for the first time but the contents of that discussion have to remain confidential. What I can say is that all of the talk was about finishing the season. No conclusions were reached on any other models. Those are future conversations we may need to have.”
The prospective restart of matches has long been pegged to early June in discussions, but when asked if he thought these dates were still on course to be met, Masters demurred.
“I really wouldn’t want to make a prediction now,” he said. “There are many steps to be taken, many hurdles to get over before we get to that point. It’s too early for us to talk about it. We want to remain in step with government and the authorities, and we want to remain in step with the mood of football supporters.
“I think really the talk at the moment should be about the tentative steps we are taking now.”