Premier League state of play: Project Restart progressing but footballers divided

Published on: May 22, 2020
Author: Daniel Hubert
Project Restart plans worry Troy Deeney and other Premier League players

The Premier League is edging closer to making Project Restart a reality. A few short weeks ago, the prospect of resumption looked highly unlikely given the health situation in the country.

Yet, although the United Kingdom has been one of the worst-hit by the current crisis, the Premier League looks to have found a way to get its campaign back up and running next month.

Chief executive Richard Masters will not be celebrating just yet, though. There is still work to do to win over some significant stakeholders, including several footballers who remain unconvinced by their plans.

The biggest development this week came on Monday, when Premier League clubs voted in favour of beginning phase one of Project Restart – a return to training.

Things are not back to normal just yet, though, with social distancing rules still being maintained and contact training not yet permitted. Not every player agreed to return, however.

Chelsea star N’Golo Kante was granted compassionate leave because of his concerns, and the Frenchman could even miss the rest of the season.

Kante’s father passed away when he was 11 and his brother died of a heart attack two years ago. These tragedies have no doubt left a mark on the midfielder.

Deeney leads Project Restart concerns

The most vocal absentee was Watford captain Troy Deeney, who made it clear during and after a Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) conference call that he is not prepared to put football above his family’s safety.

“I’m not even talking about football at the moment – I’m talking about my family’s health,” the striker said on Instagram.

“If I feel that I’m not looking after my family, then I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to put my family at risk.

“What are they going to do, take money off me? I’ve been broke before, so it doesn’t bother me. They’re talking about not playing in front of fans until 2021.

“So, if it’s not safe enough for fans to be inside a stadium, why should it be safe for players to be in there?”

Nigel Pearson, Deeney’s manager at Vicarage Road, accused some of “closing their eyes to the threat” in an interview with The Times.

Urging caution, Pearson admits he is worried about a football-related fatality and the impact that would have on the game.

Hornets goalkeeper Ben Foster also questioned the ethics of footballers receiving tests when there is a shortage in the health sector.

Norwich City defender Grant Hanley, Brighton and Hove Albion striker Glenn Murray and Newcastle left back Danny Rose have all expressed reservations about Project Restart.

Positive tests an obvious problem

Players and staff of 19 clubs were tested at the start of the week (the 20th club’s results will be released on Saturday), with six of 748 coming back as positive.

This was welcome news for the Premier League; no one expected there to be zero positive tests, and six is certainly fewer than many had feared before the exercise began.

Individuals will be tested twice a week going forward, with Prenetics – a company from Hong Kong – insisting that their exams have an overall accuracy rate of almost 99 per cent.

There is a growing acceptance that clubs will just have to accept losing players who test positive, with the six names above currently isolating for seven days.

Some sides may bemoan the loss of key men from either training or competitive action, but that is also the case with injuries in a normal campaign.

However, the Premier League could have a major problem on its hands if a club is struck by multiple infections.

Public Health England rules state that a “contact” of a known case should enter quarantine for 14 days. This means entire squads may have to isolate if there is a concentration of cases within the ranks.

That was the fate suffered by Dynamo Dresden in Germany’s second tier, leading to the postponement of their upcoming matches.

This is problematic both in terms of scheduling and sporting integrity. When the club’s employees are able to reconvene, they will be two weeks behind their rivals in terms of fitness and training.

Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling made a similar point last weekend. The England international believes players would need up to five weeks to get back up to speed.

Further votes planned and hopes of free-to-air games remain

This puts the Premier League’s preferred restart date of June 12 under significant doubt. Players have now been away from their clubs for more than three months, which is substantially longer than any summer break.

Expecting them to be able to play multiple games a week in a rush to finish the season is unrealistic, says Sterling.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Project Restart is on the right track, and further progress is expected to be made in the coming days.

The Premier League has held discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and public health officials about entering stage two of the plan, which incorporates a return to contact training.

All 20 clubs will meet again on Tuesday, when the Premier League hopes to hold a vote on its protocols. There will then be talks with the police to discuss the safe staging of matches at home grounds.

The Premier League forced to backtrack on its original idea of holding all remaining 92 fixtures at neutral stadiums after fierce opposition from several clubs.

There is also a hope that dozens of matches will be made available to watch on free-to-air television.

The government explicitly backed Project Restart by acknowledging that football’s return would lift national spirit, so Sky and BT are unlikely to have a monopoly on the games that are still to be played.

While 47 have already been assigned to the two aforementioned broadcasters, that leaves 45 up for grabs.

It is difficult to see the Premier League season resuming in three weeks’ time as the powers that be originally planned.

However, it is now looking increasingly likely that the 2019-20 season will indeed restart at some point in June.