Premier League clubs told neutral venues essential to plans to complete season

By Laura ScottBBC Sport
Bournemouth's Vitality stadium
The Premier League has been suspended since 13 March

Neutral venues will be the only way to complete the season, Premier League clubs were told during a video conference on Friday.

"Up to 10 stadiums" would be used to resume the 2019-20 campaign.

The Premier League would also need up to 40,000 tests for players and staff if plans to play the 92 outstanding games behind closed doors are pursued.

Clubs reiterated a commitment to resuming the season "when safe and appropriate to do so".

The conference followed a separate meeting, hosted by culture secretary Oliver Dowden, involving medical experts from several sports organisations, government and Public Health England, about "stepping up planning" for sport's eventual return.

Representatives from football, rugby union, cricket, racing and funding body UK Sport were present.

Dowden introduced the meeting and said elite sport would return behind closed doors "when, and only when, it is safe to do so on the basis of expert medical advice".

BBC Sport understands that sports have accepted that the return to competition is going to be a "long, detailed process" and the discussions in Friday's conference were largely based on the resumption of training.

F1 representatives also discussed the prospects for the British Grand Prix.

'No decisions taken' at Premier League meeting

The Premier League said in a statement it would "only return to training and playing with government guidance".

"No decisions were taken at today's meeting and clubs exchanged views on the information provided regarding 'Project Restart'," the statement added.

"It was agreed that the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), the League Managers' Association (LMA), players and managers are key to this process and will be further consulted."

A major factor in the decision to use neutral venues is it try to reduce any chance of fans congregating, and the selected grounds will be largely based on a rating from the police and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority.

Not all of the proposed eight to 10 neutral venues will necessarily be Premier League grounds, although the vast majority will be.

Clubs will also have to sign up to a medical protocol, put together by the Premier League doctors' group and the League's medical adviser, which will be phased in as the situation changes.

The Premier League has been suspended since 13 March but all clubs remain committed to playing the 92 remaining fixtures of 2019-20 and there was no discussion about voiding the season.

It is understood that overall the Project Restart plans were well received by clubs, but elements that were challenged will be worked on.

The PFA and LMA will be tasked with carrying out a consultation of players and managers.

There will be a meeting of clubs following the government's review of the lockdown restrictions next week, but this will not take place on Thursday.

If training is resumed before social distancing rules are relaxed, BBC Sport understands players will be tested for coronavirus twice a week and would be screened for symptoms every day. All tests would be carried out by health professionals at a drive-through NHS testing facility that each club would have access to. Training grounds will be optimised for social distancing and high hygiene levels.

In addition:

  • Players must arrive at training grounds in kit and wear masks at all times.
  • They must not shower or eat on the premises. If clubs want to provide players with food, it must be delivered as a takeaway to players' cars.
  • Only essential medical treatment would be allowed, with all medical staff in full PPE.
  • All meetings and reviews must take place virtually and off-site.

Analysis - some clubs harbour misgivings

Dan Roan, BBC sports editor

Friday's Premier League meeting featured a robust but polite exchange of views over Project Restart.

League bosses will be pleased that the clubs agreed to reconfirm the core objective of playing out the remainder of the season if government deemed it safe to do so.

But I understand there are clubs that harbour misgivings about playing matches at neutral stadia over a period of just a few weeks and whether that is distorting the format and integrity of the competition too much.

Take a club like Brighton for example. Rather than playing Liverpool, Man City and Man Utd at home in the run-in, as scheduled, it would now have to face these top teams somewhere else. What if they then ended up being relegated by a point?

Some will believe the current circumstances inevitably require flexibility from clubs. But others feel that this is not what they signed up to. They are also said to be worried that some players - especially from France, Belgium and the Netherlands where seasons have been cancelled - may refuse to take part on health and safety grounds, and that they could even fake injuries in order to avoid matches. Divisions could come to head at the end of next week when clubs will meet again to vote on the Premier League's plan after the government's review of the lockdown.

The Premier League has been encouraged by government to do all that it can to try and get the season completed, and feels duty-bound to do so, with commercial contracts to honour, jobs on the line, and future payments to the EFL also at stake.

But insiders also recognise that more work needs to be done on the virus transmission risk of playing football when compared to other sports and indeed other jobs that may be granted dispensation by government to return once some social distancing measures are relaxed.

And that will be a focus of the panel of sports' medical experts that also met with public health and ground safety officials on Friday, as they step up plans for a potential return to full training and then, if government agrees, full competition.

I understand a key figure in that process is renowned orthopaedic surgeon and sports injury specialist Dr James Calder who chaired the discussion and has been asked to provide an independent perspective.

'Litigation inevitable'

Liverpool players celebrate
Liverpool are 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League table

Leading sports lawyer Nick de Marco told BBC Sport any decision made will need to be a "compromise" but "it's inevitable there will be litigation arising from it".

"It's impossible to reach a decision that will please everybody. The legal issues and of course the health issues are the main determining factors at the moment," added De Marco.

He said there are "four big legal issues" which would involve broadcasters, sponsors, clubs and individual players.

Those could include disputes over value for money if the season is not completed, as well as disagreements over who is awarded the title, who is relegated and who is promoted.

"There's also the fundamental health problem. What if players don't feel that it's safe to return?" he added.

De Marco also said there was a "very big problem" regarding player contracts as "nothing is preventing them" from walking out if it expires before the season is completed.

"You could have a player playing for a club one week and a rival the next week," he said.

'Change of behaviour needed'

Eva Carneiro while working as Chelsea's first team doctor
Eva Carneiro while working as Chelsea's first team doctor

Former Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro told BBC Radio Four a "change of behaviour" is needed when football does return.

"I think it is possible to change the culture of the sport and it requires rigorous implementation," said Carneiro.

"In order to do that, you require the support of your governing body and that has historically not always been the case in football."

Carneiro said the "close contact of footballers" during games, travelling and in training makes them "so much more prone to developing infection".

"I think there will be a lot of fear. That won't be held by the widely varying practices," she added.

"The evidence base for this virus is in its infancy. We know very little about it so to be able to deliver a safe return is going to be a huge challenge and I think we require time."

Carneiro added that doctors will need training on infection control while "rapid and effective testing" will be "key" to a safe return.

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