The anticipation for the return of the Premier League among football fans is palpable. As ‘Project Restart’ continues to gain momentum and teams begin ‘phase one’ training in small groups, fans are becoming increasingly optimistic about a return to top-flight football next month, despite the prospect of empty stadiums, and potentially even neutral grounds, shorter matches, and increased substitutions for the foreseeable future. It is also understood the protocols being worked on in football insist on two coronavirus tests a week for players. In light of this, is the return of the Premier League both safe and feasible? Will the league be an accurate reflection given the current proposals? Below are the views of our sports writers Joshua Willcocks, Liv Perry, and Tom Clabon, who discuss whether Premier League football should return.
A summer of Premier League football on our screens would surely provide a much needed source of comfort and excitement to a nation wearied by months of lockdown, yet it is impossible to ignore the inherent risks of restarting the league during the ‘worst public health crisis in a generation’.
Whilst the return of the Bundesliga in Germany is encouraging, the situation in the UK is troubling as the death toll continues to rise, and questions persist regarding the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and testing.
Premier League officials remain committed to finishing the season, though it is clear that the safety of players and staff cannot be guaranteed, despite the new measures being put in place. At what point do the risks outweigh the financial ramifications? Who is to say that fans will not congregate outside stadia despite the ban on spectators?
In addition to the growing safety concerns, there are also worries about the integrity of the competition being compromised if only certain venues are used and some clubs play fewer home games than their rivals, especially teams chasing European places, or those fighting relegation.
Ultimately, it will be the clubs, in collaboration with the government, who decide whether the season continues. No matter the circumstances, greed must not trump the concerns of the players and staff.
One of the biggest issues facing the restart of the Premier League has been the debate over the use of neutral venues, which was proposed in order to stop fans from congregating outside stadiums. But what does this proposal mean for teams fighting for their place in the league? Unfair relegation.
For Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich (who are currently in the relegation zone), the difference between playing an upcoming match at home or away is huge. The support of a home crowd could pay dividends in securing an unexpected – and perhaps season-saving – result against a big team, or any team in fact. Norwich, for example, are still due to play West Ham, who are currently in 16th in the table. This match, which is bound to be close, may have a huge impact upon the final standings, and Norwich’s chances of survival. In a match as closely contested as this one, Daniel Farke’s side will need all the support they can get, and a home crowd (which is rightfully theirs, seeing as the reverse fixture was played at the London Stadium), could secure Norwich the victory they need. If this match were to take place at a neutral venue, the Canaries would not have the support of their home fans, something that the Hammers had back in August. You can therefore see why many teams are seeing this proposal as unfair.
It is no secret that many players are afraid of returning to training and matches, as evidenced by the likes of Troy Deeney and N’Golo Kante, and team doctors are increasingly concerned over how to maintain the health of their squad. What if one player were to contract coronavirus; would the entire team have to isolate for 14 days? If so, what about the matches that are meant to be happening in quick succession to ensure conclusion by July? Teams cannot afford to miss a fortnight of football, when such a deadline looms. Would that match be rescheduled? If so, when? How can you decide final league standings if some matches were cancelled or postponed due to safety concerns? If players are scared to such an extent that they fail to turn up to matches – which is completely understandable – is it fair that the team has to play with a weaker line-up? Their first team could have won the match, but, due to circumstances out of their control, they were forced to play a weaker team and potentially lose. None of it is rational.
I have been surprised at the desperation with which the FA and UK Government have fought for the return of football. You might be thinking that if they think it’s okay to restart, then we should trust their judgement. You should remember, however, that these institutions make billions of pounds from football – in 2016/17 the government made £7.6 billion from football income tax – this is money that they would greatly appreciate in this time of financial crisis.
There were even rumours of shortening the match lengths to ensure they took place, although these were quickly shut down. If concerns over safety are high enough to consider making the game shorter, then the match should not be played at all.
It is therefore my opinion that the 2019/20 Premier League season should not continue, and be declared null and void. There is no way to maintain the integrity of the season when half of it was played in normal circumstances and half of it not. I can understand the utter frustration for Liverpool and their fans, and other teams like Leicester City which have had a successful season thus far – and perhaps they should be celebrated in some manner – but, like with most areas of life this year, it has to be accepted that things will not just return to normal just yet. There is no way to stop passionate and selfish fans congregating outside a stadium. There is no way to avoid members of teams and staff from catching the virus. Football, although a morale booster and a huge income maker, is not worth risking lives for.
The home crowd undoubtedly serves as a team’s ‘twelfth man’, and statistics highlight the advantage of playing at home, evidenced by the bottom six clubs having secured between three and nine points more at their respective home grounds. Despite this, it would be foolish for any of the bottom six clubs to argue that they would have beaten opposition such as Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea, or Man United purely because they were playing at home.
While the Bundesliga’s return will see teams play at their home stadiums with no fans in what the Germans are calling ‘ghost games’, the advantages of playing at home under these Covid-19 circumstances are no more than the possible familiarity that the home team could have with the pitch and the venue. Such circumstances are far from ideal in finishing this campaign. All teams however should try to complete the season in some capacity; this campaign must be concluded in some fashion before we start a fresh one and return to some form of normality in the next campaign.
It is clear that their views differ somewhat in regards to whether the Premier League should restart, and the manner in which it is played, which is the case for most football fans across the country. Whether the Premier League returns imminently or not, the unfortunate aspect is that there will be no fans at games. Will this further transform the ‘spectator sport’ into an ‘armchair spectator sport’?