January 31, 2023



Watford chairman questions integrity of ‘distorted mini-league’ at neutral venues | Football

3 min read

Watford have joined Aston Villa and Brighton in voicing objections to the Premier League’s plan to play out the season at neutral venues on police advice, claiming it would be unfair to relegate clubs on the basis of a competition that “bears no resemblance to the one that was started”.

Sitting just above the bottom three when the league was suspended and uncomfortably aware Villa could leapfrog them if they play and win their game in hand, Watford were due to play five of their remaining nine fixtures at Vicarage Road and feel that being deprived of home advantage could affect the number of points they gather.

The club chairman and chief executive, Scott Duxbury, will tell representatives of other Premier League clubs at a conference call meeting on Mondaythat several clubs are unhappy at the prospect of finishing the season under new conditions.

“I absolutely accept that we cannot have supporters in the stadium in the present situation, but being unable to play our remaining home games at Vicarage Road, with the familiarity and advantage that brings, could end a small club like Watford’s time in the Premier League. Would that be fair? Or have any resemblance of sporting integrity? Of course not.”

No vote is expected to be taken on Monday, but one is likely to be held a week later. Under Premier League rules a minimum of 14 clubs must be in favour of any proposal for change, so it would take at least seven dissenting voices to prevent the so-called Project Restart plan being adopted. Every club would prefer to play the remaining home games at their own stadiums, though most are willing to bow to police advice and health considerations.

The principal advantages of neutral venues from a policing point of view are that supporters are less likely to congregate outside, and several games can be played in succession at the same ground, thereby speeding up the rate at which the remaining 92 games can be completed and reducing the burden on supervisory and safety staff.

While only three clubs having gone public with their concerns, it is feasible that the present bottom six, if not more, will share Duxbury’s fear of being relegated through an artificial process. West Ham were initially thought to be in favour of scrapping the season and relegation with it, though the chief executive Karren Brady now says that while clubs on the brink are understandably concerned about giving up home advantage, “everyone will need to make compromises”.

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Duxbury is hoping some of the higher-placed clubs will sympathise with Watford’s position, even though he clearly has a robust understanding of the league’s realpolitik. “There is no altruism in the Premier League, there are 20 different vested interests,” he said. “That is why some clubs are happy to sign up to Project Restart because arguably there is only an upside for most. It means Liverpool can win the title and others can book their place in Europe.

“But when at least six clubs – and I suspect more – are concerned about the clear downside of playing in a distorted nine-game mini-league, then I believe the Premier League has a duty of care to address those concerns. To wave aside all the fears is too simplistic, the season must be ended safely and fairly.”

Relegation fears apart, Brighton’s technical director and former Football Association planner, Dan Ashworth, believes many clubs in Leagues One and Two will struggle to survive if, as expected, those seasons are scrapped in coming weeks. “If there is a shortage of money everybody will have to cut their cloth accordingly,” he said. “It may be necessary for clubs to groundshare, for example.

“One of the things we explored during my time at the FA was the concept of B teams, strategic loans clubs or partner clubs. In this sort of crisis we have to look at ways of sharing resources and helping one another and maybe ideas like that come back on the table.”

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