Why it remains a waiting game for English football

The Premier League says it is “considering the first tentative moves forward” out of the coronavirus crisis but stressed there will be no return to training without Government approval.

File photo dated 01-01-2020 of FA Premier League head Rick Parry PA Photo. Issue date: Monday March 16, 2020. English Football League chairman Rick Parry said "now is the time for cool heads and calm reflection" as he and his organisation refused to be drawn on speculation concerning how or if the 2019-20 season can be completed. See PA story SOCCER EFL. Photo credit should read Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Like their Football League (EFL) counterparts, England’s top-flight remains committed to trying to complete the 2019-20 season. EFL chairman Rick Parry stressed as much in his latest letter to clubs yesterday, contradicting reports captains and union representatives had been warned a return was increasingly unlikely at League One and Two level.

The Premier League held a meeting to discuss “Project Restart” yesterday, and also took part in one with the Government’s medical working group for a return of elite sport, but firm dates are still not possible. UEFA have set a May 25 deadline for the Premier League to provide a concrete resumption plan.

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The use of neutral venues was said to be the source of much debate, but is now seen as the most likely approach at the top level.

Sign of the times: A Premier football along side a PPE face mask.

“The league and clubs are considering the first tentative moves forward and will only return to training and playing with Government guidance, under expert medical advice and after consultation with players and managers,” said a Premier League statement, adding: “The clubs reconfirmed their commitment to finishing the 2019-20 season, maintaining integrity of the competition and welcomed the Government’s support.”

The French government effectively put a stop to the Ligue 1 season this week, while Germany’s delayed the hoped-for May 9 return of the Bundesliga.

Sheffield United are one of five Premier League clubs to reopen their training ground this week, but only for individual sessions at staggered times strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Should the league go down the route of neutral venues, with Wembley and training grounds including St George’s Park options, it will be a blow to the Blades, who were due to host an FA Cup quarter-final, plus league games against Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton and Chelsea – all of whom could be considered rivals for European qualification.

The Football League stressed their commitment to playing on their own grounds, albeit behind closed doors.

“Some progress has been made in respect of planning how matches may take place, with draft operational plans put before the board at this week’s meeting,” added Parry.

League Two Bradford City revealed yesterday: “City officials have recently been informed of the ever-growing possibility of supporters being unable to attend matches until 2021.”

Lower down the pyramid, where reliance on matchday revenue is much higher, the economic strain of behind-closed-doors football will be most keenly felt.

The Bantams have responded by sending three players back from loans, and releasing Dylan Mottley-Henry at the end of his short-term contract.

Testing is another big issue, with a widespread feeling players cannot take part in matches without first being given a clean bill of health. It will be an exhaustive and expensive project, but Parry says he will not make the public relations error of sanctioning it while NHS and other key workers are struggling to get the tests they need.

He also said the St John Ambulance were prepared to provide medical cover for matches, reducing the burden on emergency services.

“Whatever the outcome, we are confident that, at this time, access will not be an issue and the acquisition of supplies will not be at the expense of the country’s frontline staff,” he wrote. “That simply is not an option.”

It has been suggested that even if regular season matches could not be resumed, the Championship might try to play its play-offs behind closed doors, with semi-finals over one leg. None of Yorkshire’s Football League clubs are in play-off positions.

Whether they would be needed would depend if the Premier League was able to complete its season and produce three teams to be relegated. In that case, Leeds United and Rotherham United could expect promotions if there was no football at their levels, with Barnsley relegated.

Academy football has been abandoned for 2019-20, a decision said to be “independent of any discussions regarding the resumption of the 2019-20 campaign for first-team football”.

The Premier League have moved their next meeting forward a week to next Friday, which could be the day after the Government reviews its lockdown restrictions.