English football's 'first tentative moves' towards restart but no dates yet

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.

LETTER: Football League chairman Rick Parry

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Like their Football League (EFL) counterparts, the top-flight remains committed to trying to complete the 2019-20 season. EFL chairman Rick Parry stressed as much in a letter to clubs on Friday, despite reports the previous day that club captains and union representatives had been warned a resumption was increasingly unlikely at League One and Two level.

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The Premier League held a scheduled meeting to discuss “Project Restart” on Friday, and took part in another with the Government's medical working working group for a return of elite sport, but firm dates are still not possible.

“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 on Friday, 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 have reopened their training ground this week, but only for individual sessions at staggered times strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Training grounds including St George's Park and neutral venues such as Wembley have been mentioned as possible locations for the Premier League's remaining matches, and this was thought to be the topic of much debate on Friday. The Football League stressed their commitment to playing on their own grounds, albeit behind closed doors.

“Whilst there is still no further clarity on a return of EFL matches, the objective remains to play the remaining fixtures for the 2019-20 campaign at the current 71 EFL grounds,” wrote Parry.

“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 and incorporating many areas such as: stadium preparation, medical provisions, staffing, media access and, of course, measures needed to ensure the safety of all participants including first-team players and staff, match officials, and everyone else associated with the matchday environment.”

League Two Bradford City told its supporters on Friday: “City officials have recently been informed of the ever-growing possibility of supporters being unable to attend matches until 2021. And it is now highly likely that next season will commence behind closed doors.”

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 to the uncertainty by sending three players back at the end of their loans, and releasing Dylan Mottley-Henry at the end of his short-term contract.

The issue of testing is also important, with widespread agreement players cannot take part in matches without being given a clean bill of health. It will be an exhaustive and expensive project, but Parry says the League will not make the public relations error of carrying it out while NHS and other key workers are struggling to get the tests they need.

He also suggested the St John Ambulance were prepared to provide medical cover for matches, reducing the burden on the 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 for the EFL to consider.

“The St John Ambulance service has indicated it would be in a position to work with club medical teams to provide medical cover on matchdays, therefore once again alleviating the concern of increased burden on clubs and frontline services.”

It has been suggested that even if regular season matches could not be resumed, the League might try to play its Championship play-offs behind closed doors, with semi-finals over one leg. No Yorkshire club in any of the Football League's three division is in the play-off positions in the tables which would have to be used to decided them.

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.

Academy football for clubs in categories three and four has been abandoned for 2019-20. This is administered by the Football League, who insist the decision is “independent of any discussions regarding the resumption of the 2019-20 campaign for first-team football”. No decision has been made on how or if the final league placings will be decided.

The move affects Bradford City, Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United's academy sides, but those in categories one and two are run by the Premier League.

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