Everything you need to know: Will football return? How, when and where the game could come back - and the issues it faces
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With Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to address the nation tomorrow about the potential easing of lockdown measures, football could take a step closer to a return. Mark Heath looks at when and how that might happen, plus how the game may have to change.
The million dollar question. Or, in the case of the Premier League, the billion dollar question!
Everything points to football restarting in early June. The EFL are apparently taking aim at June 6, with 56 days needed to complete the campaign, including play-offs - although hopes seem to be fading that Leagues One and Two will return at all.
The Premier League, meanwhile, are said to be targeting June 8 as part of their ‘Project Restart’.
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A number of Premier League clubs have already re-opened their training grounds to allow players to train individually on their numerous training pitches.
EFL players aren’t allowed to return to training until at least May 16, but all Ipswich players have been given plans to follow while at home.
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Players at all levels would need a few weeks to regain ‘match fitness’ - something which can only really be achieved through training matches and group sessions, the likes of which simply aren’t allowed currently.
In any forecast, it is almost certain that the games needed to finish this season will be played behind closed doors.
Indeed, it was reported last week that EFL players and bosses were being told that fans may not be able to return to grounds until 2021.
In that scenario, EFL chairman Rick Parry has suggested that the lower leagues may have to delay their 2020/21 campaigns until fans can return, such is the importance of gate receipts.
Rather than use evey ground, the Premier League are planning to pick between 8-10 neutral venues at which to play games, sparking complaints from those battling relegation about the loss of ‘home advantage’ in the run-in. Aston Villa, Brighton and West Ham have all publicly opposed the plan.
In the EFL, it’s not clear if the same plan would be used, or whether teams would simply play out their remaining home and away fixtures in the respective empty stadiums.
The possibility of fans gathering outside stadiums before and during games also raises concerns.
A key issue which needs to be resolved in any scenario which involves the current season running past June 30 - as looks certain. That is the date on which most players’ contracts run out - it’s estimated that more than 1,000 players in the EFL will be out of contract after that date. Stevenage, as one exmaple, have just two players under contract past June 30.
Clearly, players will be unwilling to take the risk of competing without a contract, so it’s a vital issue to be addressed. The EFL suggested last weekend that one of three options needs to happen by June 23 - offer a new deal, extend the current deal, or release the player. Week-to-week contracts could also be used.
At Town, this affects first team players Cole Skuse, Gwion Edwards, Will Keane and Danny Rowe, plus returning loanee Jordan Roberts. Luke Garbutt, who is on loan from Everton, will cease to have a Toffees contract after June 30 too – something which he acknowledged as ‘complicated’ last week.
Given the need to retain social distancing even if lockdown is lifted, the game could look very different if and when it returns.
Players will likely have to wear masks and other protective equipment during training - and potentially during games - while the high amount of physical contact during corners, free-kicks and throw-ins would pose problems.
FIFA has said that teams may be allowed to make up to five substitutions during a game - something Town boss Paul Lambert would certainly be a fan of, given he said it would be ‘dangerous’ for players to play 90 minutes after the enforced lay-off. PFA boss Gordon Taylor has also floated the idea of shortening halves from 45 minutes.
It’s estimated that the EFL will need 66,000 coronavirus tests to allow the season to be finished, a staggering and costly amount.
In the Premier League, clubs are reported to have invested in £36,000 testing machines which can turn around results in two-and-a-half hours. Players will have their temperatures checked every day.
At any level, there could be no suggestion that football was taking tests away from the NHS or other key workers.
WILL IT HAPPEN?
The return of football this season, once seen as inevitable, looks to be hanging by a thread.
In the EFL, The Telegraph have reported that the season could be scrapped as early as next week - with just three League One clubs saying they want to finish the campaign. Given the lower finances and higher reliance on gate receipts in the lower tiers, one can understand the reluctance – it’s estimated it will cost clubs £700,000 to stage their remaining games with no fans.
The Premier League, as ever, remains a different case. The huge amount of money involved makes it more likely that they will at least attempt to finish the season - but a minimum of 14 out of the 20 clubs have to agree to the plan. Even if they pass that bar, all it would take is one positive test to throw the season into doubt once more.
UPS AND DOWNS
If the League One and Two seasons are indeed abandoned, the big question will be how to resolve promotion and relegation.
According to The Athletic, clubs will have to vote on a preferred method - with a points per game model, weighted to take into account how many games teams have played at home and away, being the current favourite.
A non-weighted PPG model would not reflect the fact that some teams have more homes games left to play than others - Ipswich Town, for example, have five of their remaing eight games at Portman Road.