When will the Premier League return? It is a question that’s been asked ever since the suspension of the professional game in England on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but seven weeks on, the big question remains unanswered.
Following a video conference involving all 20 Premier League clubs on Friday, Project Restart, the so-called blueprint to kick-start the football season, remained firmly on hold. In the English Football League (EFL), which covers the Championship, League One and League Two, tentative plans are in place for teams to return to training later this month before a potential resumption of competitive fixtures on June 6. But with the United Kingdom government yet to ease lockdown restrictions on society, football is unable to lay out a clear roadmap towards playing again.
There are many issues for football to address, so what are the prospects of the 2019-20 season restarting and are the Premier League and EFL heading towards a cancelled campaign?
So what is the state of play in England?
The Premier League has been on hold since Matchday 29, with Liverpool needing just two wins from their final nine games to win the title. With four teams — Man City, Arsenal, Sheffield United and Aston Villa — having played 28 games, there are 92 fixtures still to be completed in the Premier League. No issues have been decided; everything is still to play for.
In the EFL Championship, Leeds and West Brom occupy the two promotion spots. There are nine rounds of games to play in the 24-team Championship, which means 108 fixtures have yet to be played. Leagues One and Two have a similar backlog of games to complete, while the FA Cup — the national competition involving teams from all levels — is suspended at the quarterfinal stage.
That’s a lot of games! Why don’t the leagues just cancel their seasons like in France and the Netherlands?
The Premier League is committed to finishing the season and that determination was reiterated on Friday, following the latest video meeting of the clubs. The EFL, meanwhile, has stated a desire to return to action “at an appropriate point based on guidance from the relevant authorities.”
Research done by accountants KPMG suggests that cancelling the season could cost Premier League clubs a collective £1.1 billion in lost revenue. Gary Neville, co-owner of League Two side Salford City, has claimed that EFL clubs face “absolute carnage economically” unless the Premier League clubs deliver a financial package to help keep smaller clubs afloat. Last month, the Premier League sanctioned a solidarity payment of £125 million to the EFL, but that was an advance of a regular payment rather than a loan or donation.
Finances are a huge part of the problem, but there is also a desire for promotion and relegation races to be decided.
Are clubs just aiming to restart in order to receive TV money?
The broadcasting revenue is a huge factor for Premier League clubs because money received from that pot exceeds every other income stream. Huddersfield were relegated in 20th place last season, but they still banked £96.63m in broadcast revenue. Liverpool were the biggest earners with £152.43m.
The financial implications for the Premier League clubs are obvious, but in the EFL, the loss of income through the turnstiles is the biggest concern. (By comparison, the EFL TV deal is worth a mere £595m over five years.) Gate receipts tangibly sustain clubs in the lower leagues, and many are concerned about returning to action behind closed doors because they will have to pay wages and other outgoings, with virtually no money coming in.
Players at all levels have taken pay cuts or accepted deferrals. Some clubs in the lower leagues, including Sunderland, have furloughed first-team players.
So why hasn’t the Premier League set any dates to return?
The Premier League has made it clear that it cannot, and will not, set a date for a return to training or competitive action until the UK government has made clear that it is safe to do so. Within that, the Premier League and EFL have made the widespread availability of testing for the coronavirus a key factor in any return. Until testing is available to the extent that football does not drain the supply of tests for frontline workers, the game will remain on hold.
The PL, EFL and English Football Association (FA) are in regular communication with the government about a return to action — the government is backing Project Restart — but no breakthrough has yet been made.
Is testing really the key to all of this?
It is one big issue, yes, but with games likely to be played behind closed doors once football restarts, everyone involved in the fixture would have to be tested, from players to ball-boys and girls. It has been estimated that 66,000 tests would be required to complete the EFL fixtures. In the Premier League, with approximately 300 people needed at every closed doors game, it would require a minimum of 27,600 tests.
If just one participant was to test positive, every person they came into contact with would then be required to self-isolate for 14 days, potentially bringing the entire restart to a halt.
Are there any other significant obstacles that must be cleared?
Yes, plenty. As reported by ESPN, many players are reluctant to return to action due to concerns over their safety.
Within Project Restart, there are proposals in place to ensure players can train safely, such as the wearing of face masks, training in small groups and no-contact fitness work. Regular testing will also take place. But once playing resumes, it is impossible to play football without the risk of physical contact and footballers fear potential transmission of the virus.
Spitting may be banned to reduce the risk of transmission, but what if a player suffers a cut or bloodied nose? Could play continue in such circumstances?
Player contracts are another problem. Football contacts run from July 1 to June 30, so players whose contracts expire at the end of next month would need to have their deals extended in order to play. Some players may not want to jeopardise free contract moves elsewhere and could refuse to play.
Another issue hinges on where games will be played. Everything is under consideration but the front-runner after Friday’s meetings would be to use neutral venues, with teams playing at grounds where their fans are less likely to congregate. One notable alternative that was previously discussed — use of the playing fields at St George’s Park, the National Football Centre and home base for the England national team — has since been ruled out.
So what happens next?
The Premier League will meet via video conference again on May 8 due to an expectation that the government will relax some lockdown measures on May 7. If that happens, the Premier League can then roll out its roadmap towards a return to action, with early June the favoured target date. Training would resume a month before any competitive fixtures.
The EFL has told its 71 clubs to prepare for a return to training on May 16. Sources have told ESPN that there is a growing mood within League One and League Two for the season to be cancelled, however, due to the prospect of football returning without paying spectators.
The National League, English football’s fifth tier that feeds into League Two, cancelled its season last month and will announce next week whether it will null and void the campaign or decide the league table in a way that honours sporting integrity. If the National League can find a workable solution — average points-per-game is a favoured option — it may trigger a similar move in League One and League Two.
If the coronavirus problem proves insurmountable for the Championship and Premier League, the National League could be a bellwether for the top end of the English game. Ultimately, it will not be easy for English football to unravel this complex problem and there are no guarantees that the 2019-20 will be concluded on the pitch.