Premier League state of play: The issues surrounding football when it resumes

14th September 2021

Premier League facing challenges over contracts and safety

In ordinary times, the finishing line would be approaching in the Premier League.

The title race would almost certainly have been over at this point, but there would likely still be plenty to play for in the battle against relegation and the tussle for the top four.

These are not ordinary times. Almost seven weeks have now passed since the most recent Premier League match – Leicester City’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa.

The season was put on hold a few days later. England’s top flight acted much later than most of its European counterparts – with the football authorities initially hopeful that they would be able to resume activities in early April.

That always looked optimistic, and it was no surprise to see that date soon pushed back to the start of May. Yet that too has proved unrealistic, and the campaign has now been suspended indefinitely.

The latest developments indicate that a return before the middle of June is unlikely. UEFA, European football’s governing body, wrote to domestic associations last week urging them to complete their seasons before July 31.

That would leave August clear for the Champions League and Europa League, which would precede a short break before the start of 2020-21.

There are still 92 fixtures left in the Premier League. If the competition was able to resume on June 13, England’s top flight would have seven weeks to stage its remaining matches.

In this best-case scenario, players would return to their clubs for training in mid-May, giving them around a month to build up their fitness ahead of the first round of competitive games since March.

Safety and contracts among challenges facing Premier League

However, there is only so much the Premier League can control, and a decision may ultimately be taken out of their hands.

It is patently clear that all remaining games would have to be played behind closed doors, but the people present at each match – players, staff, security, media, officials – would still be in the hundreds.

There would also be a need for medical personnel and equipment to be on hand at every stadium, which could compromise the National Health Service’s wider work, while many are concerned that supporters would gather in large groups away from the grounds to watch the games.

If all of these obstacles prove insurmountable, the Premier League understands that it may not be able to get back underway until the autumn.

On the football side of things, players’ contracts were perhaps the biggest issue. Deals typically run until June 30, and dozens of Premier League footballers would be free agents when that date rolls around this year.

FIFA is looking at ways to temporarily extend all contacts that are set to expire in two months’ time, but it is not clear whether players would be comfortable doing that.

What if, for instance, they sustained an injury in a match in July for a club that has no long-term stake in their future? Moreover, there have been suggestions that such a move could violate UK law.

It is largely for that reason that some clubs are pushing for the Premier League to set a deadline of June 30 for completing the campaign.

June 30 or bust?

If that is not possible, they argue, the 20 top-flight sides should accept that the 92 remaining games will not be played.

Media reports suggest that as many as nine sides are of the opinion that it should be June 30 or bust.

It would take 14 votes to make that proposal a reality, but the majority of the division’s teams remain keen to persevere – and the Premier League itself is not yet ready to give up on finishing the season in the usual manner.

The collective intention is still to complete 2019-20 when it is “safe and appropriate” to do so.

Liverpool, 25 points clear at the top of the table, are often the first case brought up in discussions of sporting integrity, and the problems that are inherent in the suggestions from some quarters that the season should be declared null and void.

The fate of the Reds, however, is one of the simplest to resolve. Given their substantial lead at the summit, there can be no arguments if Liverpool are awarded the title should it prove impossible to play out the remaining fixtures.

More complicated are issues involving the European qualification spots and the relegation places.

La Liga has announced that, in the event of their season being cancelled, the current top four would qualify for the Champions League.

Getafe, outside the leading quartet on their head-to-head record with Real Sociedad, would feel extremely hard done by in that eventuality.

Specter of legal challenges

In the Premier League, Aston Villa could plausibly launch a legal challenge if they are sent down to the Championship having played a game fewer than their relegation rivals.

A team such as Bournemouth, who are inside the bottom three on goal difference, could argue that they had some favourable fixtures coming up and were in effect being punished for having faced Chelsea and Liverpool just before the season was paused.

On Wednesday, West Ham United manager David Moyes became the first person in his position to publicly question whether it is feasible to restart the season.

“The deeper and deeper you look the harder you feel it is to get it up running again,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to realise there are a lot of people whose lives we could be putting at risk.

“We can’t let that happen. I think until we have the testing, which we need for the nurses and the doctors – I’m finding it really difficult to see where the conclusion is and how we can start [to play].”

That view will probably become more widespread as time goes on, and the Premier League must now begin to consider what it will do if it is no longer possible to complete the 2019-20 campaign.

For all involved, it is an unenviable task.

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