Premier League football may or may not start up again in June to complete the 2019-20 season, but if it does the matches will take place at the clubs’ home arenas. According to the Times of London, the league has dropped the “neutral site” proposal from Project Restart after receiving significant pushback from clubs.
Neutral sites were floated as an option due to some mealy-mouthed ideals about the “integrity of the game” and because league officials were worried that football fans would break social distancing guidelines to congregate outside of the stadiums of their clubs. However, twelve clubs — most notably the ones at the bottom of the table — objected to neutral stadiums because, even without fans, the home-field advantage is real and so long as relegation is on the table those clubs don’t want to give up any advantage they have.
Interestingly, Tottenham Hotspur were also reportedly in the group opposed to neutral site games, even though Spurs wouldn’t benefit from match day revenue, since there would be no fans in attendance.
This doesn’t seem to be slowing down the speeding locomotive that is the league’s push to restart the season, however. League officials are now, according to the Times, pushing ahead with trying to convince Premier League players to restart the season, suggesting that it will happen “if there is a will to make it happen.” Based on comments from Premier League CEO Richard Masters, it doesn’t sound like that’s a danger unless there is a majority of players who will refuse to play, or clubs start putting their feet down.
Getting the players onside remains the other big issue. In Monday’s Premier League shareholders’ meeting most clubs said that they had players who were anxious about returning to training on Monday even though it will involve working out in small groups under social distancing measures.
Before today’s meetings players and managers have been provided with a condensed version of a 40-page protocol document. Yesterday senior players and captains who are scheduled to attend the meeting were planning to discuss the documents sent out by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) with team-mates.
On Monday Masters was asked if he could foresee players vetoing a resumption of the season by refusing to play. He said he could not because, while clubs have said they have players who are concerned about safety, at no point has any club said they fear they will be unable to honour their fixtures because players will not return to work.
There remains real concern among both clubs and players about the mechanics of restarting football and the inherent dangers of doing so in a global pandemic, including assurances of player safety in training, travel to and from matches, accommodations, and playing each other on the pitch.
On Monday, the UK government released a document providing the blueprint to reopening the country’s economy, which included allowing entertainment activities to take place behind closed doors as early as June 1. It is thought that unless there is backtracking from governmental officials, Premier League football could restart in empty stadiums in mid-June.