Project Restart, the story so far: criticisms, challenges, logjam

Training pitch balls

Decisions are being made on resuming top-flight football. While France’s Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie have both been abandoned, the German Bundesliga has restarted.

Since the Premier League’s suspension on 13th March, lobbying efforts to allow football’s return have been well received by the government, with cabinet member Dominic Raab stating the return of sports would “lift the spirits of the nation”.

The Project

On 11th May the government approved the league’s continuation for any date after 1st June. The logistics of ‘Project Restart’ are currently being negotiated.

The scheme would commence on 12th June and see the remaining 92 league games and additional FA Cup fixtures played over an intensive seven-weekend period with two matches played mid-week in what some have described as a ‘football festival’, costing clubs £340 million in television revenue refunds.

These fixtures would be played behind closed doors at around ten neutral venues in an attempt to moderate the risk of fans congregating outside stadia. Project Restart would also include the use of 40,000 coronavirus testing kits in the effort to control the virus.

All Premier League clubs will return to training from 19th May and social distancing measures will remain essential with other precautions implemented where possible and necessary. For example, tackling will be banned while balls, corner flags, cones and even playing surfaces will be disinfected and players will be restricted to training groups of up to five.

Additional ongoing surveillance measures that include twice-weekly testing and a daily pre-training questionnaire and temperature check will also be implemented.

Similar plans are being considered for lower leagues.

Corona virus empty stadium

The Criticisms

Given the tight-time frame, the project’s viability has been questioned. Dependent on self-isolation measures, clubs could find it difficult preparing their teams in a short window, to then start playing multiple matches in a concentrated period. An increased risk of injury is a major concern amongst many clubs.

This project is facing a race against time. Top flight managers and captains have all raised concerns over the quick turnaround, and the 12th June start date is looking increasingly likely to be pushed back a week to 19th June. 

Most worrying however, and what forms the basis of opposition towards Project Restart are the moral issues at play – the increased risk for individuals to contract and spread the virus.

Some reports suggest a Premier League game needs anything of up to 500 personnel at a stadium, while lower down the Football League, suggestions of anything up to 180. The health threat posed has resulted in doctors from 20 top-flight sides contacting the Premier League with around 100 questions and issues to voice their concerns on returning to training and fixtures.

Premier League players have been advised to make their own decisions on the safety and fairness of resuming, with some making it clear they feel they’ve been put under ‘intolerable pressure’ to save the game from financial meltdown and finish the league.

It has been reported that Pep Guardiola, Frank Lampard, Nigel Pearson and Graham Potter all voiced their concerns on rushing back to games. Understandably, those involved are concerned for not only their own wellbeing, but also their families. 

While precautions have been made necessary for training, once games commence some will be impossible to implement.

The Challenges

Tensions are high after a third Brighton player in England and three FC Köln players in Germany all recently tested positive for coronavirus. In fact, Sky Sports reported one Premier League club owner believes the ubiquitous risk and intensified circumstances have made players reluctant to return to work, and there is now a “40 per cent” chance of the current campaign’s cancellation.

Burnley players turf moor

As the FA emphasised they would not sanction the season being voided, nor allow relegation to be scrapped, the option to determine the league null and void without both a winner or relegated teams and having a twenty-two-team-league next year for one season only has been ruled out.

Therefore, if the season is cancelled the only likely option would be to determine the final league standing via mathematical formula. This could result in a “summer of chaos” with relegated clubs suing the Premier League, likely on grounds of illegitimacy.

Certain aspects of Project Restart have also been challenged from within. At least two-thirds of clubs oppose the neutral venues directive, while the BBC reported some clubs towards the lower end of the division will accept the idea of neutral venues if the prospect of relegation is removed, their argument being the benefits players feel from playing at home.

Similarly, Watford chairman and chief executive, Scott Duxbury, stated playing at neutral venues would compromise the game’s fairness and sporting integrity. Others have pointed to the fact that many Premier League sides have large, state-wide followings. This could mean eager fans from across the nation could and would gather outside any stadium, neutral or not and regardless of geography, suggesting the irrelevance of the initial reasoning behind the neutral-grounds directive.

It is clear internal mutinies threaten the existence of the project. Directives require 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs to vote in favour. If logjam continues and clubs fail to get their act together to agree on key elements of Project Restart, English football faces missing UEFAs 25th May deadline regarding season completion or cancellation.

A timeline of what’s next is below:

  • Monday, 18 May: Next Premier League meeting
  • Monday, 18 May: Premier League players may return to initial group training under socially distancing protocols
  • 25 May: UEFA deadline for leagues to have finalised plan for restarting seasons
  • 1 June: Government date for possible return of elite sport behind closed doors in England
  • 12 June: Premier League aiming to return with first fixture

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