An increasing number of Premier League clubs are actively discussing the possibility of bringing the season to an early end, with concerns growing over the feasibility of a return even behind closed doors.
The Premier League is suspended indefinitely and, last week, a meeting of the 20 clubs reaffirmed the intention to complete the season when it is “safe and appropriate”. Away from collective discussions, however, clubs are informally talking about the hurdles in the way of a return, with some asking whether the challenges will soon become too great.
The Guardian has spoken to clubs who have raised a range of concerns. The most immediate is a fear over the medical safety of playing a full contact sport while there is the risk of contracting Covid-19.
Clubs were told last week that play would resume only once there was sufficient capacity to test players, staff and other individuals – such as TV broadcast teams – involved in any behind-doors competition. There has also been a provisional medical plan drawn up between the league and range of club doctors over how to minimise the risk of infection.
But the practicality of the plan was questioned by one club, who argued that players may have to be separated from their families for a month or more to make sure they are not infected. There is also the concern over the amount of testing required, with perhaps multiple tests per person per match being required, and the possible insensitivity of undertaking such a plan when frontline workers in the NHS and other public services are currently not getting the testing they need.
Concerns over health and safety were not the only issues raised, however. For clubs outside the big six there are also distinct financial challenges with playing on. If the season were to return in mid-June – a best-case scenario – clubs would need to extend contracts of some of their players who might otherwise have left, keeping large wages on the payroll. Equally some clubs at the bottom would be paying greater wages than would have been the case had they already dropped down a division and activated relegation clauses. It is also the case that some clubs could find themselves in legal dispute with players over extending their deals.
If it were judged safe to play and clubs were able to take the short-term financial hit in the hope of recouping the money later through broadcast revenue, for example, there would remain issues over sporting integrity. A compacted remainder of the league season, with 92 fixtures still to be completed, would take place during the summer months and would have a physical impact on players. Clubs with smaller squads would face a challenge.
One club are believed to consider the age profile of their squad as a disadvantage if a regular weekend-midweek-weekend rhythm were required. Another raised the issue of what would happen should a player refuse to play over welfare concerns, or if a player who had been set for a transfer were selected against their prospective new club.
The issues may be resolvable but it is understood they have not been discussed openly in Premier League meetings. One club official who has taken part in the meetings said there had been no attempt to ascertain a preferred outcome and none expressed by individual teams. The next Premier League meeting is scheduled for Friday 1 May.