Everton players will return to Finch Farm for the first time in more than two months on Wednesday, the first step towards a resumption of the Premier League following the coronavirus pandemic.
Clubs voted unanimously to begin stage one of its return to training protocols, part of the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’, at a shareholder meeting on Monday.
Players must observe social distancing guidelines and will be only be able to train in small groups, with contact training still banned.
| Our players will return to USM Finch Farm this week after Premier League Shareholders today voted unanimously to return to small group training. #EFC— Everton (@Everton) May 18, 2020
There will also be comprehensive testing for covid-19, with players only cleared to train if they receive a negative test. Should a player test positive, then he would be expected to self-isolate for 14 days.
The Premier League has provided 40 testing kits for players and staff per training session, with the results expected to be back within a day.
A Premier League statement read:
“This first stage has been agreed in consultation with players, managers, Premier League club doctors, independent experts and the Government.
“Strict medical protocols of the highest standard will ensure everyone returns to training in the safest environment possible.
“The health and wellbeing of all participants is the Premier League’s priority, and the safe return to training is a step-by-step process.
“Full consultation will now continue with players, managers, clubs, the PFA and LMA as protocols for full-contact training are developed.”
Though this remains a small step towards a resumption, it is no less significant given the amount of wrangling it has taken to get here.
Doctors have expressed their concerns about liability should a player test positive, while the players themselves remain cautious about resuming action given the virus is not yet fully under control.
The Premier League has pencilled in June 12 as a potential restart date, though that now looks likely to be pushed back as players do not feel they have sufficient time to get up to match fitness.
So although we may soon say the Everton players back on the training field, there is a long way to go before we see them on the pitch - not forgetting that their first scheduled game back is against Liverpool.
Neutral ground plan likely to be dropped
The Premier League was no doubt watching with interest last weekend when the Bundesliga became the first major league to return to action, albeit behind closed doors.
At time of writing the games appeared to pass by without incident, providing a clear template for the Premier League to use when formulating their own return.
Everton announced on Sunday that they will begin refunding season ticket holders for the remaining five matches of the season this week in the expectation that those games will take place without fans.
The lack of supporters clearly had a detrimental impact on the Bundesliga. It was eerie to see the thunderous yellow wall at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion reduced to a grey facade of silence.
This isn’t the football we know and love. But we all know why the league is pushing for a return, and it isn’t sporting integrity.
They need football back in any form to honour expensive TV broadcasting contracts and avoid using methods such as points-per-game to decide issues like relegation, which would likely spark some expensive rounds of litigation.
The prospect of playing matches at neutral grounds, to ease policing and safety concerns, was met with fierce opposition, particularly by clubs near the foot of the table who rely on home advantage more than others.
But if Saturday’s action in Germany told us anything, it was that home advantage was neutered by the absence of fans anyway.
For once I am grateful that Everton are stuck in mid-table with little to play for as it is not a satisfying way to win or lose.
These are football matches with their heart and soul hollowed out. Yet they are an economic necessity in these in precedented times.
With the rest of the world starting to adapt to a ‘new normal’, maybe it is football’s turn to make sacrifices?
Perhaps we just have to accept that the game as we knew it before this awful pandemic is just not ready to return. And this new reality is as good as it gets until a time when we can consign the coronavirus crisis to the annals of history.