Premier League making 'good progress' but vote only on next phase of training

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says the Premier League are making “good progress” towards resuming the 2019-20 season, but Monday's vote will only approve the tentative next step towards a mid-June return.

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Having been given proposed protocols for a return to training in groups of five, clubs will be asked to vote for it in Monday's meeting. But with UEFA's deadline for a timetable for the resumption only a week away, that issue will be put on hold with Watford's Troy Deeney reiterating his concerns.

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Clubs such as Sheffield United have been back training on an individual basis for four weeks, but if they get approval today they will be allowed to return in groups of three to six working with three coaches whilst observing the Government's current social distancing guidelines. They are not due to change until June at the earliest.

TRAINING: John Egan and his Sheffield United colleagues are waiting for permission to step up from individual to group training

"I had some very constructive discussions on Thursday with the FA, the EFL and the Premier League," said Dowden, who hopes to see some games televised on free to air.

"We are working hard with them to try and get it back, aiming for mid-June, but the number one test if public safety.

"They, like a lot of other sports we're looking at returning behind closed doors, have met with Public Health England several times to look at the safety.

"If we can sort that out then we will look to resume by mid-June. We're making good progress."

Mid-June would not seem to tally with the timeframe some players and coaches feel is needed to get fit enough to play top-level football having been out of action since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been suggested the campaign could be allowed to end in late August as a result, although that will have contractual issues.

The initial hope was to agree a return date too, with UEFA saying they need one by May 25, but that now seems to have been put off because reaching agreement at this stage might be too difficult. Deeney, said to be one of the more vocal captains in meetings they are represented in, says too many “very simple” questions remain unanswered for that. His concern is less about what is being voted on now, more the next steps, and he has already said he would have no qualms about refusing to play if he felt uncomfortable.

The evidence suggests men and those from ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by covid-19, which is a serious concern with so many coloured players such as Deeney in the Premier League.

“I think the concern is very much that phases two and three have not been clearly laid out,” said Deeney.

“There's been a lot of, what I would class as very simple questions, that haven't been answered.

“For example, you can talk about the BAME situation. Government guidelines are saying that it's four times more likely for people of colour to get the illness and twice as likely to have lasting illnesses but there's no extra screening, there's no additional checks being done on any players because it costs too much money.

“Simple things like that are where people are asking questions and it's not being answered. When people can't answer the questions, you start to panic and start to worry.”

Deeney has extra reason to be concerned because his son suffers from breathing difficulties. The concerns many players have are less about themselves, more about vulnerable family members.

He explained: “Phase two will be next week, six days' worth of training three to six people training together with contact and then six days after that you're going into 11v11 and you can't social distance with 11 v 11.”

Sheffield United's players have been very positive in public about the prospect of returning, something chief executive Stephen Bettis says has been replicated behind closed doors and across the club, but it is impossible to see how the Premier League could push through a restart without getting a large majority of all squads on board.

Germany's Bundesliga became the first major European league to return at the weekend, and La Liga stepped up their training schedule on Monday by beginning training in groups of up to 10 players. Their aim is to return on June 12, which is the Premier League's preferred date.

Motivations for a Premier League return including protecting its multi-billion-pound television deal and raising national morale, which could be contradictory.

Sky Sports, BT and a host of worldwide broadcasters pay for exclusive rights to the game, and the matches still due to be shown this season are thought to be worth £762m. Even showing them at a different time and behind closed doors could lead to some companies asking for at least some of their money back.

Since the Premier League was formed in 1992, no live matches have been shown live on free-to-air television, but Dowden hopes that can change.

“I'm hoping we can have something a bit more ambitious with some more free-to-air matches for people to watch from home because that would be helpful in terms of discouraging people from leaving their home to watch it."

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