The vagaries of the fixture computer meant their final four home fixtures of the season were due to be against Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and (at the time matches were suspended) an in-form Everton, all of whom also had hopes of qualifying for Europe. The Blades’ FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal was due to be played at Bramall Lane too.
It depends who you listen to, of course, but the mood music out of yesterday’s Premier League meeting seemed to suggest if the top-flight is able to get up and running again, fixtures will be played at neutral venues. It was said to be the topic of considerable debate.
If playing at Wembley, St George’s Park or elsewhere is the price of getting Premier League football safely and sensibly up and running, so be it.
Once the Government approves, once players can be tested for coronavirus without worrying they might be depriving NHS and other key workers of the checks they need – and certainly not before – the Premier League will need to try to get up and running as quickly as possible. If that proves impossible, tough.
Yesterday’s news that Bradford City released four players – three of them loanees – highlighted that the longer the wait, the greater the problems. The further down the pyramid, the greater the difficulties, the more urgent the timescale if all clubs are to make it to the other side.
As a non-league chairman said to me yesterday: “The problems are the same throughout football, there are just more noughts the higher you go.”
So it makes sense if the Premier League uses some of the noughts in its bank balance to jump through a few extra hoops.
Not all stadia are ideally set up to maintain social distancing guidelines off the field that will be impossible on it. Not all have the desired infrastructure nearby for housing quarantined players between matches. Multiple games at the same location each day should keep the number of off-field personnel needed down, and reduce the ambulance crews and required on standby.
It will damage the sporting integrity of the competition.
But by the sounds of it – and no one can predict the course of this virus or the search for a vaccine – it might be 2021 before we get close to restoring the sporting integrity by having teams playing on their own grounds in front of passionate fans. By then, squads will have changed, injured players will be fit, the world will be a different place.
So long as “sporting integrity” only gets scuffed, not battered, we will have to live with that too for some closure on this season.
In the lower leagues, things could be far trickier. Bradford’s website lists 31 first-teamers including the four let go, two more due to leave and three to return from loans in the summer, and 13 others out of contract at the end of June. In other words, 15 players in July, not enough to name a full bench and not many injuries before they are struggling for an XI.
Once teams stop being able to fulfil fixtures, sporting integrity goes out of the window.
Granted, Bradford will probably be glad to see the back of 2019-20, but if Leagues One and Two have no choice but to abandon ship, quibbling over home comforts seems a bit daft.
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