Sheffield United and Premier League rivals back to work as UEFA eases pressure

Sheffield United’s players will be allowed to start training in small groups this afternoon but a decision on the next phase of the Premier League’s “project restart” could be seven to 10 days away with UEFA set to push back its deadline.

BACK IN THE GAME? Sheffield United’s players, pictured during pre-season at their Steelphalt Training Academy, are set to return to training in small groups later today after the Premier League agreed to the significant move yesterday afternoon. Picture: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Yesterday the top-flight clubs unanimously agreed to allow their players to work in small groups at their training grounds as long as they observe social distancing rules.

But the more controversial steps – the resumption of full-contact training and of actual football – were not voted on, and may not be until late next week.

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It therefore now looks unlikely Premier League football will be played on the mooted date of June 12.

HOPEFUL: Richard Masters, Premier League chief executive. Picture: Alex Morton/Getty Images

UEFA told its leagues it wanted a timetable for the resumption of the 2019-20 season by Monday so it could be signed off at their May 27 executive committee meeting, but yesterday it announced that had been put back to June 17, citing issues over the venues for the European Championships.

The Premier League are set to make use of their extra time, according to chief executive Richard Masters.

“We have been focused on this staging post, it’s not a firm commitment, for June 12,” he insisted.

“So we haven’t changed the start date, we have to be flexible about it. What we don’t want to do is continually move that start date. So we haven’t changed it, we need to be flexible and acknowledge we are in a step-by-step process.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder. Picture: James Wilson/Sportimage

“Next week we are going to be discussing full-contact training protocols. Once you know when you can start full-contact training and we have had a proper discussion with clubs about how much is required to create the fitness levels before they can start playing we are in a position to confirm when the season start is.

“Today we haven’t talked to the players or even the clubs yet about return to contact training, in terms of the fine details of protocols. We’re anticipating we can do that in the next week to 10 days. Before any decisions we will have very similar meetings with players and managers to explain to them how contact training would work and so they can raise their concerns and questions.”

The Blades players have been training on an individual basis for four weeks. The first round of Covid-19 test results are due at 2pm, after which individual players will be given the green light to train – or not.

Germany’s Bundesliga resumed playing at the weekend, five weeks after reaching the stage the Premier League begin today. Players in Spain’s top two divisions returned to training in groups of 10 yesterday.

The Football Medicine and Performance Association, which represents football’s medical practitioners, said half the Premier League doctors and physiotherapists who answered their survey did not feel they had been “fully and effectively” consulted about the return to training. Concerns were raised by 68 per cent of Football League respondents.

Premier League medical adviser Mark Gillett says players will probably have to quarantine in hotels before games.

“The advice we are getting from Government is that if you are going to isolate you have to do it for 14 days,” he said. “So you will need to be in a hotel environment for 14 days to make it truly effective. Now that is something we are going to need to think about and consult widely with players, managers, clubs, LMA (League Managers Association) and PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association).”

Sheffield United’s players have been enthusiastic about returning but a number of their high-profile counterparts have voiced concerns, and it has been reported testing company Project Screen by Circle (PSC) have appointed former Leeds United defender Rio Ferdinand to a “player engagement” role, although they have not confirmed as much.

“Clearly we cannot de-risk the entire thing,” commented Masters.

“But I think what we have created is an extremely safe environment that is the first stage of a return to training.”

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said before yesterday’s meeting he hopes some matches will be shown live on free-to-air television for the first time in the history of the competition, which began in 1992.

Motivations for completing 2019-20 include protecting its multi-billion-pound television deal and raising national morale, which could be contradictory.

Sky Sports, BT Sport and a host of worldwide companies pay for exclusive broadcast rights and the matches still due to be shown this season are worth around £762m.

Even showing them at different times and behind closed doors could lead to companies asking for at least some money back.

“We were able to give clubs a very brief update on that and the discussions we are having with both the Government and the broadcasters to try to come up with the right formula,” said Masters.

“Out of the respect to all of those broadcast partners I don’t think it is right to confirm any specific part of it.”