When will the Premier League return? Or is Project Restart just a fantasy?

The future of the 2019/20 Premier League season is poised on a knife-edge. We round up the key hurdles it must clear before the comeback

Man City Etihad

The sweet idea of a football-flooded June, a Premier League return, continues to be floated with a number of wild ideas being weaved together into a patchwork blanket plan.

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Our news feeds have been bombarded with suggestions from those in – and out – of the know as the situation continues to evolve.

Never before has the Premier League’s actions been so interlinked with those of the government, football is on strings, like the rest of us, simply doing what it is told and awaiting further instruction.

The Premier League comeback operation – labelled Project Restart – will be triggered by no mere flick of the switch, it’s going to require a re-wiring of the system, a plan like we’ve never seen before, if it is to return to complete the 2019/20 campaign.

At the very core of the issue are logistics and safety. That’s an over-simplification to the nth degree, but that’s the bottom line. Solve the logistical chaos, safeguard workers – from players to security staff – and ladies and gentlemen, you’ve got your Premier League back.

We look into a range of hurdles the Premier League must clear confidently, reliably, comprehensively in order to make its return.

The Time

Ironically, lack of time is very much an issue for the Premier League. We’re all rolling in the stuff, recurring 90 minutes’ in which the highlights usually contain raiding the fridge or a state-mandated stroll. The Premier League doesn’t have time.

An eight-week timeline has been prepared, from the start of training to Liverpool’s eventual trophy lift. The Premier League needs to find eight weeks in the diary, knowing that every move has consequences on the 2020/21 campaign.

Manchester United Marcus Rashford

UEFA have set a 25th May deadline for plans to be submitted, and with UK lockdown still enforced, Premier League football prior to June looks about as possible as Manchester City leapfrogging the Reds.

There’s an immediate discord between UEFA, who are eager for domestic leagues to resume and in turn the Champions League, and FIFA. The chair of the latter’s medical committee, Michel D’Hooghe, publicly stated that football should be paused until September at the earliest, or potentially even until a vaccine is found.

Assuming UEFA and the Premier League ignore FIFA’s hand-washing of responsibility and carve their own path, eight weeks from an arbitrary start date of 1st June would be knocking on the door of the initial 2020/21 season start date, and of course there simply must be a break, a transfer window, an off-season, traditionally… another eight weeks.

A key issue with nudging next season back is the rearranged EURO 2020 that will be played in summer 2021, and will not be moving again. EURO 2020 – as it will still be known – is the full stop, the line. Once it comes around, the football calendar will resume as ‘normal’.

The Humans

Say they find a chunk of time, say June sprouts an extra 56 days and the Premier League flexes its muscles, pre-season will be minimal, players will be shaking off their own rust and dust, injuries will happen before a ball is even kicked.

Players who do hit the ground running on the training field may find themselves without an employer by the end of the month regardless with 30th June marking the date hundreds of player contracts will change or cease to exist.

Brighton

A workaround extension plan must be produced, one that clears every legal hurdle it could face.

Some teams will have budgeted for high-earners to leave on June 30th, meaning contracts shouldn’t be auto-extended across the board. A nuanced system comprising of options to extend on the same terms or mutual agreements to terminate deals must be spawned.

A reminder too that while Premier League players are of course continuing to earn wages ranging from lucrative to astronomical, many have seen their wages chopped in some form. In essence, employees have had their pre-agreed contracts snipped by their employers.

Money aside, players’ health and safety cannot, simply cannot, be violated. Reports suggest that a number of clubs fear negligence claims by players if they are forced to play. Does this mean players will be able to opt out for the incredibly valid, extremely base-level reason of ‘not wanting to contract a potentially lethal virus’?

Brighton veteran Glenn Murray spoke out against ‘farcical’ guidelines issued via conference call by the Premier League to disinfect corner flags and training cones if the contact, man-to-man sport returns.

Guidelines also recommend face masks to be worn. Reports claim four clubs are in talks with a Dubai-based firm to supply state-of-the-art N95 masks which could be used in-game.

Another contentious issue raised is the fact that players would need to be coaxed into ‘bubble cities’, quarantined hotels, away from family and friends for the duration of the season. It all feels a little ‘animals at the circus’ being caged up and forced to dance for the punters.

On a human level, would any of us do the same? Would we choose to be separated from friends, family, detached from our already fractured daily lives to perform tricks for strangers?

In the US, the NBA is eyeing up Disney World as an unorthodox location for a bubble city, complete with hotels and courts. 30 professional basketball teams and all their players locked down in the ‘happiest place on Earth’ may sound like the greatest idea for a Netflix series since we took a deep dive into the psyche of exotic cat owners in the States, but what a seismic undertaking that would be. The logistics of it all and dare I say the morals of actually stripping players away from their families during an already scary time to be alive sit uncomfortably.

Make no mistake, almost every word I’ve written about players applies to 278 other people to be in each stadium for each game. An estimate suggests 300 members of staff would be required to host a bastardised Premier League game behind closed doors.

Manchester City's Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero (C) celebrates with team-mates after scoring the opening goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Sheffield United at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)
Manchester City’s Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero (C) celebrates with team-mates after scoring the opening goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Sheffield United at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)

Tempting, teasing part-time staff, casuals in for shifts, or even simply finding loopholes to bring full-time contracted members into a potentially dangerous environment evokes another sense of ‘borderline behaviour’ being required to make this work.

Machines acquired by clubs in the event of a restart require two and a half hours to produce results of a COVID-19 test, a good turnaround, but the £36,000 units can only check out one person at a time. That equates to your goalkeeper, back four and strike partnership being tested in a 24-hour period, no time for your midfield ranks, I’m afraid.

Based on a crude calculation of one test per person per game, for 300 people, across 92 games that need to be finished, you’re looking at a need for approximately 27,600 tests.

All of this must be conducted within the confines of a bubble.

The Integrity

This is the point where we turn away from the logistics and safety concerns and look at the sport itself. In the grand scheme of things, integrity of football isn’t exactly a high priority, but it still matters.

If the issues above are negotiated, by mini-miracle or other means, we are left with 20 professional football teams returning to action in name alone. They are not the same teams who are poised where they are poised in the 2019/20 Premier League table. All manner of changes have occurred, from mental attitude and mentality, from physical fitness and sharpness.

You couldn’t order an Olympian to get up and smash the 100m final at a moment’s notice, why are footballers any different? If the beautiful game returns, players will be expected to compete for hundreds of millions of pounds at probably around 80 per cent physical capacity, at least in the opening gambits.

You’d be guaranteed an outrageous string of results in the opening weekend, a battle of sheer grit and fitness as opposed to a blend of skills.

Liverpool’s status as title winners would be rubber-stamped without great controversy, but for those teams at the bottom, a return to football could be cataclysmic.

Liverpool Fabinho

A major hurdle in simply ending the season and enforcing relegation now would be a unanimous distaste for murky legal battles. Similar arguments could potentially be made if teams are forced to compete against their will and end up being relegated.

Of course, this article doesn’t have the time to rip open the EFL can o’ worms but if the season is played out and teams are relegated, are there going to be any teams able to fill their shoes next season? Do Leeds come up? Every legal issue the Premier League could face is replicated times over in the EFL, precedents being set all over.

Another minefield I won’t explore now goes wider than football, a precedent for returning to work would also be set for other businesses to chip away at. If 300 employees are at work in a stadium, does that give licence for retail shops and office blocks to reopen?

I rue the use of ‘unprecedented’ during ‘these times’ but the Premier League really does find itself in the most unique position a UK sporting body has faced in history. Never before have sport, money, livelihoods and wider society been so interconnected, interdependent in many cases.

Of course, the motivation for a restart is money, and not wrongfully.

Clubs are losing millions each week in lost match day revenue, scratches on their knees for many, but losing a TV deal would deliver a flush punch to the face.

Broadcasters with near-literal captive audiences would relish the chance to beam their product to millions across the globe. Sky are reportedly developing CGI fans to drop into terraces in case of that eventuality.

Right now I’m at 1,589 words and I could go on. I haven’t answered your question: When will the Premier League return?

I could write the same amount tenfold about each isolated hurdle above, and all things considered, surely the question has to change from ‘when will…?’ to ‘should…?’

Is it worth it? We have to ask, is it really worth it?

In football terms, I have genuine sympathy for Liverpool and their fans, an all-time Premier League great David Silva would be denied a raucous send-off, Leeds would miss out on promotion, but very bluntly, are any of those events – or the sum total of them all – worth the sacrifice of one life?

The answer cannot be ‘yes’. It cannot.

Ironically, the return of football would probably inspire more people to lock themselves indoors than Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty and the whole cabinet combined, but there is no actionable plan.

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I would be the first to strap myself to a chair and unflinchingly soak up Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Night Football if the restart is executed, but right now it’s a mirage – a tantalising glimpse of a season we must accept may never be safe or logical to conclude.