A crucial few days lie ahead for the Premier League, with the fate of their ambitious ‘Project Restart’ on a knife edge.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce plans to ease lockdown restrictions in a live address to the nation on Sunday.
On Monday, Premier League clubs will vote on the Project Restart plan, which would see the remaining 92 fixtures played behind closed doors at neutral venues across the country.
The proposal needs 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs to vote in favour for it to proceed. If clubs vote against the plan, the prospect of the season coming to a premature end comes to the fore once again.
Even if it passes the project is fraught with difficulty, not least a tight timetable.
If lockdown restrictions are eased this weekend, then clubs have to resume training by May 18 to allow for a return to action in June. All matches then need to be completed by July as UEFA wants to wrap-up the Europa League and Champions League during August.
Up to 40,000 testing kits would also be needed for players and staff, with the Premier League acutely aware it does not want to be seen to be depriving frontline healthcare workers of tests and equipment. Club doctors have also expressed a range of concerns, including their own liability and insurance if players catch the virus.
The Premier League hopes the neutral ground plan will help ease those concerns and ensure stringent safety protocols are met. It has selected grounds which can accommodate social distancing measures (for example, separate entrances for the two teams) and are not in heavily built-up areas to make it easier for police to disperse any supporters gathering outside.
That would likely exclude Goodison of course, and more than likely Anfield (Liverpool), with Old Trafford (Manchester United) and Etihad Stadium (Manchester City) expected to be the northern grounds.
Reports suggest the King Power Stadium (Leicester City), Molineux (Wolverhampton Wanderers) and Villa Park (Aston Villa) would serve the Midlands. The Emirates (Arsenal), Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Wembley would serve London with St Mary’s (Southampton) and the Amex (Brighton & Hove Albion) hosting games on the south coast.
The proposal has met with substantial opposition, not least from the clubs at the bottom of the table, who tend to rely more on home advantage than sides at the top.
Aston Villa, for example, have six of their remaining 10 matches at home, so it is little surprise chief executive Christian Purslow has publicly come out against the plan. Villa have taken 17 of their 25 points at Villa Park and have a game in hand on their relegation-contending rivals, with a victory in that game enough to lift them out of the bottom three.
Then there is the argument that playing at neutral grounds is fundamentally altering the format of the competition. So would playing that way really be maintaining ‘integrity’ of the Premier League?
Reports on Thursday suggested the league will attempt to strong-arm clubs currently in the bottom three to vote for the plan by warning they will be relegated if they don’t. Whether that’s a credible threat remains to be seen, and would likely result in legal action if it is implemented. In fact, there would be litigation all over the shop if the remaining fixtures are not completed, including from clubs looking to come up from the Championship, hence the league’s desperation to get games back underway.
Then there is the players. Would they be willing to come back too soon? Trying to resume a contact sport when the rest of the world is supposed to be socially distancing is fraught with difficulty. There is talk that celebrations, shirt-swapping and spitting would be banned, but that makes little sense when players will be tackling/grappling each other for 90 minutes anyway. Are penalty boxes going to maintain social distancing when corners and throws are slung in? How about players in the wall defending a freekick?
What if one players tests positive? Does the whole team then go into self-isolation for 14 days? What about their recent opponents? It would easily cause the whole project to collapse.
The Bundesliga is set to be the first major European league to resume, with authorities hoping matches can restart on May 16. All eyes will therefore be on Germany to see how that progresses and what lessons can be learned.
Given Everton are 12th and unlikely to bother the top or the bottom of the table, the consequences of Monday’s vote are unlikely to affect them too much (being mid-table finally brings some benefit).
Obviously the prospect of declaring the season “null and void” and denying Liverpool the title piques Toffees’ fans interest, though most supporters accept that they deserve to be champions.
But if you give them the title then European places and relegation will need to be decided too, which is where the difficulty lies. Points-per-game is seen as one solution, but does not take into account the standard of opponent a team has faced/is still to face as well as home/away (dis)advantages.
Like most fans, I miss my Everton fix and want the Premier League to return as soon as possible. But it can only return when it it is safe to do so.
Even then it will almost certainly be behind closed doors, which takes away so much of what makes the game so special.
Unfortunately, I cannot see how football can be brought back safely by the start of next month. There looks to be just too many hurdles to overcome.
But given the finances at stake and the role the sport plays in our society, I can understand why they have to try.