May 14, 2020

  • Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC

The Premier League is the richest, most high-profile league in world football, and it is often credited with being a leader in its field. But even on a day when it released a single-digit figure (six) of positive coronavirus tests from 748 players and coaches, the Premier League could not escape the sense that it is fumbling around in the dark as it attempts to launch its so-called „Project Restart.“

The desire is there among the majority of clubs and players to play again soon and health and safety protocols have been sent to all clubs, but while the Bundesliga made an efficient return to league play over the weekend, England’s top flight continues to face obstacles in its return to training. There are unresolved issues with the government and police over where and when games can be played, as well as concerned players voicing their opposition to plans to start playing again.

While Germany leads the way, English football is going round in circles, seemingly waiting for the next obstacle to emerge to send the ball further down the road again.

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„We’re due back in [training] this week, I’ve said I’m not going in,“ Watford captain Troy Deeney said recently on the Talk the Talk podcast. „I can’t get a haircut until mid-July [hairdressers remain closed until July in the U.K.] but I can go and get in a box with 19 people and go and jump for a header and nobody could answer the questions, not because they didn’t want to, just because they don’t know the information.“

Deeney’s issues extended beyond the triviality of haircuts.

„My problem was in the meeting [with the Premier League], I asked very simple questions,“ he said. „For black, Asian and mixed ethnicities, they’re four times more likely to get the illness and twice as likely to have long-lasting illnesses. Is there anything extra, additional screening, heart stuff to see if people have got problems with that? No. OK, well I feel that should be addressed.“

Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling and Newcastle’s Danny Rose have all voiced their concerns about a return to action. Senior executives at Brighton and Aston Villa have raised their own issues, centred on the government/police instruction for games to be played at neutral venues to avoid supporters congregating outside stadiums. The Premier League is now attempting to persuade the authorities to allow games to be played on a home and away basis, but the problem is that none of the issues appear to be getting resolved.

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Don Hutchison and Craig Burley react to reports of Premier League players hesitant to return to training.

While debates continued over these issues, Tuesday was „training day“ in the Premier League. Well, kind of.

Following the completion of testing at 19 of its 20 clubs — the unnamed outlier completed its testing today and results will be announced within 48 hours — contact-free training involving small groups observing social distancing guidelines was allowed to take place for the first time. The six positive-testing individuals, who may be players or coaches, will now be forced to isolate for seven days (as is the official instruction from the U.K. government) while the rest of the squad continue on step one of Project Restart. But there is still no clear timescale when training will enter step two, in which contact is allowed on the training pitch. That may come next week, when there are two Premier League meetings scheduled.

The aim is for competitive action, suspended since March 13, to resume on June 12. While sources have confirmed to ESPN that June 12 is the Premier League’s „staging post,“ the league will not set that date in stone due to concerns that the government may force a further delay if the COVID-19 reproduction rate (the R) doesn’t drop sufficiently by the time lockdown measures are reviewed on June 1. The R is currently estimated to be at 0.4 in London but as high as 0.8 in the northeast of the country; these regional differences in England could prompt the government to ease lockdown on a geographic basis.

This is a problem that is both completely unrelated to football and totally out of the Premier League’s hands. If London is unlocked while other parts of the country remain bound by strict measures, would it be feasible, for instance, for Tottenham to travel to the northeast to play Newcastle?

Testing players and coaches twice a week should ensure that any positive cases can be quickly identified and isolated, but there remains some public opposition toward footballers being tested due to a perception that every test conducted in the Premier League „takes one away“ from the frontline workers. This is something of a misnomer, with the Premier League sourcing testing from the same Hong Kong-based biotechnology company, Prenetics, that has been enlisted by the Bundesliga. The U.K. government sources its own tests and the Premier League is not depleting those stocks. Still, it is a difficult path for Premier League chief executive Richard Masters to navigate.

Masters was the fourth person to be offered the job by the time he assumed the role in December, but he has had no time to make himself comfortable in the position. Unlike in U.S. sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, where an all-powerful commissioner is able to lead from the front, the power in the Premier League lies with the clubs and the broadcasters, whose multibillion-pound TV deals give them influence and leverage. This is important to note because there is no one figure capable of ensuring a consensus among the dissenting voices; it’s all done by negotiation, and any vote of the 20 Premier League clubs needs a 14-6 majority to carry.

It is not all negative, though. Sources have told ESPN that the majority of players want to return. Within the Premier League, the resumption of the Bundesliga has been viewed as a positive and as something that can help allay the concerns of those still to be convinced by the plan to restart in England. And some players, like Manchester United’s Luke Shaw, have made no secret of their desire to get back on the pitch again.

„We’re all really excited to be getting back to some normality and we’re all going to do everything we possibly can to make sure our training is as safe as it can be,“ Shaw told manutd.com. „We’ll still social distance throughout. We’ll arrive in our training gear and shower when we get home. The rules have to be really strict, but we’re obviously all going to stick to them just to make sure things run as smoothly and safely as possible.

„I think we’re all determined to do things properly because we’re all looking forward to getting back on a proper pitch! Running down at the park is okay, but obviously it isn’t ideal.“

There is no ideal right now, in football or society. The „new normal“ is the phrase we’re all having to get used to and the Premier League have been told by the government that the next 6-12 months are unlikely to be very different from the reality of the here and now. But while the Bundesliga gets on with it, the talking goes on via video conference within the Premier League. And nobody knows when the talking will stop long enough for football to take over.