10 May 2020 – The dissident Premier League clubs arguing against a quick return to football will urge a delay to Project Restart, warning that pushing ahead with plans now could cost lives.

As Premier League clubs meet tomorrow by video conference, some are concerned they are being rushed into a restart which is inappropriate, given deaths from coronavirus averaged almost 500 a day in the UK last week. At present, the season is scheduled to restart on June 12 with the FA Cup final the last game of the season on August 8. But Brighton chief executive Paul Barber told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We have got to be careful that we do not misstep here because if we do, it could ruin lives. It could cost lives. And we cannot afford that.’

Clubs will also ask the Premier League to explore with the Government an opportunity to abandon the neutral venues plan and instead use home and away grounds to finish the season.

Relegation-threatened clubs, with most to lose, such as Brighton, Aston Villa and Watford, have expressed their opposition to neutral venues and West Ham vice chairman Karren Brady yesterday said clubs were ‘understandably concerned’ by the plan.

It is expected that the Premier League will reiterate that police advice and Public Health England guidance means the Government will only allow football to restart in 10 approved neutral venues and so there is no other option at present.

There is a further meeting between the Premier League, the FA, the EFL, the Department of Culture Media and Sport and Public Health England on Thursday. Some clubs want the issue raised there, even though the head of the UK Football Police Unit, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, has told football executives to ‘get a grip’ and stop complaining about neutral venues.

Tomorrow’s Premier League shareholders meeting will see clubs vote on the technical issue of extending the contracts of players whose deals run out on June 30 by a month and on approving the medical protocols for a restart, which have been developed by the Premier League with club doctors and Public Health England.

The argument will be put that a delay to a restart, when the reproductive rate of coronavirus has fallen further, would be a safer environment for players to return and would allow the possibility of home and away games, which would lessen the disadvantage of those in the relegation zone. One club owner told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I’m legally responsible for the health of all our employees, so we can’t put them out playing unless there is clarity on safety.’

But another club medic said: ‘There is no such thing as no risk. Everyone is reluctant to say that but at some stage it has to be said.’

Addressing the issue of neutral venues, Brady wrote in her newspaper column: ‘Clubs on the brink are understandably concerned about giving up home advantage, let alone playing without their vital 12th man — their supporters. The will to play is the essence of every club and player but they want a level playing field.’

Scott Duxbury, Watford chairman, wrote: ‘When at least six clubs and I suspect more are concerned about the clear downside and the devastating effects of playing in this kind of distorted nine-game mini league, then I believe the Premier League has a duty of care to address those concerns.’

The clubs feel the police are being simplistic in imposing neutral venues to deter fans from turning up and breaking social distancing rules. But they will be told by the Premier League that the authorities are insisting on neutral grounds not simply because of those fears but on health grounds, in that it is easier to sanitise a limited number of grounds and control them.

The clubs say it would be easier to control messages and influence their fans at their own grounds. Barber also says that, in the circumstances, it is important to have medical staff familiar with the stadium in case there is an emergency.

The deadline of May 25 is when UEFA have insisted that European leagues must have decided how they will settle the season.

The argument over relegation has been broadly won, with no club likely to raise that issue. It is understood that even clubs in the relegation zone will accept a restart which involves the drop, despite the huge consequences relegation could bring in the midst of an economic crisis.

There is also less talk of curtailment now. Most clubs seem to accept that the Premier League will be restarting if the Government give permission and if there is no sudden second spike in infections in the next two weeks.

Most Premier League players have been told to turn up for official pre-season training on May 18, when they will train in groups of six with strict social distancing. If the Government ease lockdown restrictions in the week starting May 25, it is anticipated that full-contact training would resume then. There will also be more scrutiny of the protocols, which will be adopted for training, which have been drafted to take account of doctors’ questions. Once adopted, they will then be put to the players and managers to see if they request changes.

As The Mail on Sunday revealed last weekend, all players will be tested for respiratory problems and have an electrocardiogram heart monitor test and one player testing positive for Covid-19 will not result in the entire squad having to isolate.

Brady revealed yesterday that West Ham players have already had their cardiac screening in preparation for a return to training. Testing has already started at many clubs, with a BUPA-owned testing company overseeing the operation, which will be paid for by the Premier League. If the Premier League does kick off on June 12, players will undertake a week in quarantine before the first game, as Bundesliga players are doing prior to their league starting next weekend.

At most clubs this week, players will continue to train individually, though Liverpool and some clubs are allowing three players into their training grounds at one time, though they have to train individually.

Many players have been talked through the key training protocols as preparation. There is a groundswell of concern among players, some doctors and a number of clubs and it is clear there is considerable work to be done to convince many that football can resume safely. Clubs reports fears that players will not want to play. Players and all staff are required to sign the protocols to ensure that they have understood them, with the guidelines so precise that it includes details of exactly where they are allowed to park when they come into training.

That has alarmed many players but clubs insist they are only being asked to sign because it is essential they understand what is required of them to maintain safety.

Insurance issues are also high on the agenda for clubs, medical staff and players. Questions are being asked as to who would be liable if the plan goes wrong and a player or family member develops severe symptoms, has to be in intensive care, or if they were to die.

Liability could fall upon the Premier League, the club, the venues which have been licenced, or the medical staff, if they have signed off the protocols.

(source: Daily Mail/IOL)