Premier League state of play: Resumption rests on return to play protocol

14th September 2021

2019-20 season needs Premier League return to play protocol

No games were played, of course, but it has been an eventful week in European football about the 2019-20 season.

Last Friday, the Eredivisie announced that the 2019-20 season would not be finished and that there would be no title winners or relegation.

French football followed in the Netherlands’ footsteps earlier this week, although Ligue 1 has since decided to award the championship to PSG and send their bottom two sides – Amiens and Toulouse – down to the second tier.

Elsewhere on the continent, the Bundesliga hopes to resume its season this month, but Serie A faces a potential setback after the Italian government expressed unease about a return.

La Liga, meanwhile, seem unlikely to get back underway until the autumn.

The Premier League now has its own plan in place, but whether or not it comes to fruition remains to be seen.

June 8 is the date the football authorities are working towards, with the 92 remaining fixtures held behind closed doors at “approved stadiums” in what some have labelled a “festival of football”.

The Premier League appears to have the British government’s approval on the idea of resuming in the coming weeks, provided it is safe to do so.

“I personally have been in talks with the Premier League with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible in order to support the whole football community,” said Oliver Dowden, UK Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“But, of course, any such moves would have to be consistent with public health guidance.”

Return to play protocol for 2019-20 season needs assent

Clubs are beginning to draw up their own plans. West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Everton permitted players to return to their training grounds at the start of this week.

Others are expected to follow suit from Monday onwards. However, there are restrictions in place.

Players are required to wear face masks while training, footballs and other equipment must be disinfected after use, and spitting is banned.

All this would suggest that things are moving in a positive direction, and it is certainly true that the Premier League has made strides in the last week or so.

But there are still several obstacles to overcome, some of which may ultimately prove insurmountable even for the richest football league on the planet.

In order for the season to resume, the Premier League must have a “return to play” protocol approved by the government.

Reports suggest that players would have to be placed in lockdown at specific hotels for six weeks, the amount of time it would take to play all remaining matches.

It is not just footballers who are involved in football matches, however.

Officials, staff, broadcasters and members of the press would also be present at grounds, meaning each game could have around 300 people in attendance.

Naturally, that complicates the task of keeping everyone safe. It also poses a problem with the Premier League’s plan to regularly test players, which has itself been criticised when there is a general shortage throughout the UK.

Estimates suggest that around two million tests would be needed to finish the 2019-20 season.

Aguero and Murray among worried players

“There are real worries about infection risks,” Jonas Baer-Hoffman, general secretary of global players’ union FIFPRO, said on Wednesday.

“There are worries about what that means for their families and friends that they engage with. They are worried very much that they represent something in society that might give a bad influence.”

Individual Premier League players have mostly kept their counsel in public, but one or two have begun to voice their concerns about the idea of football coming back in June.

“The majority of players are scared because they have children and families,” Sergio Aguero told El Chiringuito.

“I’m scared, but I’m with my girlfriend here and I’m not going to be in contact with other people. I’m locked in my house and the only person I could infect is my girlfriend.

“They’re saying that there are people that have it and don’t have any symptoms but still infect you. That’s why I am here at home. Maybe I have the illness and I don’t even know.”

Brighton and Hove Albion striker Glenn Murray echoed the thoughts of his Manchester City counterpart. “I think it is quite farcical,” he said.

“I understand why people are desperate to get football on – I am one of those people – but it’s got to be done in a sensible way, and at the right time, in a way that keeps not only the players and staff safe but there is so much that goes into a football game.

“There are going to be ambulances at training and at games: is it fair to take that [resource] from the NHS?”

Players have huge say in resumption plans

Some clubs are also treating the plans with caution. Many are worried that they will be made scapegoats if supporters breach social distancing rules by gathering to watch games on TV or outside stadiums.

On the sporting side of things, some executives have privately pushed back against the idea of staging matches at neutral venues, as they believe this would compromise the integrity of the season.

As has been the case from the start, there is no consensus among the top flight’s 20 sides over what should happen next.

Nevertheless, each of those clubs has lost revenue on account of the current situation, and the prospect of having to collectively pay back £1,137,000,000 to broadcasters if the season is cut short will not appeal to any of them.

That is perhaps the key driving force behind the desire to get the campaign back underway, but the truth is that many factors remain out of the hands of the Premier League and its 20 present members.

The lesson from this week is that players will ultimately have a huge say in whether or not the June 8 plan is realised.

They will not want to risk their own or their families’ health and safety. It will be up to the Premier League to demonstrate that they would not be doing so by completing the 2019-20 season.

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