Warring English Premier League clubs will meet on Monday (May 11) with tensions mounting over the divisive ‘Project Restart Plan’ to finish the season amid the coronavirus crisis.
Premier League chiefs hope to return to action next month, but that goal could be scuppered by an internal battle between clubs fiercely protecting their own interests.
The Premier League had delayed its latest meeting until after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Sunday. But, for those clubs and players concerned about the rush to return, his admission that the virus transmission rate is still too high to significantly ease Britain’s lockdown until at least June 1 was hardly reassuring.
The Premier League has been halted since March 13, but he offered no details about its short-term future and indicated that, while the general population will be allowed to play sports from Wednesday, they must do so only with those in their own households.
And the growing unease about the Premier League’s desire to finish its remaining 92 fixtures only increased on Sunday when Brighton admitted a third player in their squad had contracted the virus.
The scheduled return of Germany’s Bundesliga from May 16 had raised hopes that the Premier League could follow suit, yet there are stark differences between the health crisis in both countries.
Britain’s death toll from the pandemic passed 30,000 last week to become the worst-hit country in Europe. By contrast, Germany has registered just over 7,000 deaths.
However, German second-tier club Dynamo Dresden have put their entire squad and coaching staff into two-week isolation after two players tested positive for the virus.
Also on Sunday, La Liga confirmed five unnamed players have the virus and will go into quarantine.
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber has been one of the more vocal critics of the restart scheme and he 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.”
Testing and player welfare remain major hurdles to overcome, with Norwich midfielder Todd Cantwell summing up the feelings of worried players when he responded to the positive test at Brighton by tweeting: “We are just people too.”
Comprehensive testing is believed to be part of the protocols required for a restart, with the BBC reporting that this could cost about £30,000 (S$52,600) a week. Some 40,000 tests – at between £150 and £180 each – for the remaining 92 fixtures are expected to be required with each person tested twice a week.
A lack of unity has provoked another complication for the Premier League over the use of neutral venues.
League chiefs believe they will only get the government’s green light to restart if the number of venues are limited to reduce the medical, police, security and broadcast personnel required.
There are also fears over fans congregating at home stadiums, even though the matches would be played behind closed doors.
Leading the resistance to neutral venues are clubs near the bottom of the table and at risk of huge financial losses by dropping out of England’s lucrative top flight.
Brighton had five of their remaining nine games at home, while Aston Villa were due to play six of their last 10 matches at Villa Park.
“What we can’t accept is a fundamental change to the competition three-quarters of the way through,” Barber said. “That is not fair and there is absolutely nobody who will convince me otherwise.”
Villa’s chief executive Christian Purslow said giving up home advantage “is a massive decision”.
Seven of the 20 top-flight clubs would need to officially reject neutral venues to stop the plan going ahead, although it has been reported the issue will not be put to a vote on Monday.
The Uefa deadline for restart proposals is May 25 and League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan has warned a failure to reach consensus soon could see the season cancelled.
Aware of the animosity between clubs, Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish conceded it will not be easy to restart in the current climate.
“It may prove beyond us. We have huge challenges in order to get it back to complete the season but we are planning on doing so,” Parish told the BBC. “There are no easy answers. We have to work through it as a collective. I think we will come out with a consensus in the end.”