Anyone who has spent the best part of an hour just waiting to cross a supermarket threshold in the past few weeks will be aware how quickly the outlandish becomes the new normal. Yet even in these strange days it was still odd to hear Gordon Taylor pop up on the radio with the suggestion that shortened games might be the solution to finishing the Premier League season sometime before the clocks go back.
How that would have helped maintain the integrity of the competition or assisted those clubs worried they might be relegated in less than optimum circumstances remained unclear, for the Premier League was pooh-poohing the idea proposed by the Professional Footballers’ Association’s leader as ridiculous and unfounded within hours.
Like the equally baffling brainwave of suspending relegation so clubs in the bottom half of the table might feel more comfortable when playing their must-win games behind closed doors at neutral venues, there appeared to be no logic to the proposal and neither could any cogent sponsor be found to argue its merits. The idea was just put out there, kicked around for a short while, and then left to join herd immunity and too-hurriedly imported face masks in Covid-19’s unvisited museum of false hope and empty promises.
Taking relegation off the table will not be under discussion when the 20 Premier League clubs hold their conference call on Monday, and no time will be spent talking about finishing the season in five-a-side format, either, though what we might hear a lot about in the next few days, and what Taylor’s remark may have alluded to, is the ppetite among players for a return to full-scale football.
The Premier League may want the season concluded for contractual reasons, the clubs quite naturally need to know where they stand and whether seeking legal advice might be a wise precaution, but the players are at the pointy end of all the deliberations. Though their opinions have not yet been canvassed or conveyed, there is at least a suspicion that not everyone is happy with being rushed back at the earliest opportunity.
No one has so far said the players resent being used as guinea pigs for the rest of society, yet given that physical distancing will be observed at stadiums though impossible on the pitch, this may be a real concern. Top-flight football in this country disappeared overnight because of Mikel Arteta reporting a positive coronavirus test. Now clubs are being told they need not shut down their operations if a single player tests positive. As long as distancing and hygiene precautions are in place they can carry on preparing for games, though it is still to be explained how games themselves can proceed in such circumstances. A cultural change around training grounds is one thing, but actual games, with actual consequences like relegation or survival riding on their outcome, cannot be controlled in the same way as supermarket queues.
Some players appear to be more worried than others and, with football being as demanding as it is, that may amount to an injury-type situation for managers. Not only would it be impossible and unreasonable to make someone play against his will, a player might put his hand up for selection yet still find himself subconsciously guarded or hesitant once on the pitch. Football as we used to know it generally proceeded without too much mental turmoil on the part of the performers, yet even in normal times managers would quickly withdraw distracted players, often citing “his head wasn’t in the right place” as the reason. This is not football as we used to know it, quite clearly. Chris Wilder has just said he would respect the wishes of any of his Sheffield United players who wanted to opt out of games.
It would be surprising if similar conversations leading to similar conclusions have not been held at every club in the country. Whatever the aim of restarting the season in sterile conditions behind closed doors, in these circumstances it cannot be maintaining sporting integrity.
Without even going into the possibilities of what sort of teams might be fielded by clubs with no further interest in the season, or with a preference for ending the season without playing any more games, the final league table would merit the biggest asterisk in history. This is the season, the record books would explain, when the first 29 matches were accomplished using players who wanted to play every minute of every game, while the final nine rounds featured players who did not want to play at all.
It may not come to that. The Premier League will be guided by what happens in other countries such as Germany, as well as police and health advice here. But after what may be a fractious discussion between clubs divided about how the season should play out, it has also agreed to take the concerns of the players on board.
So it should, for if Project Restart is to work, and for all the obstacles in its way it still might, it will need positivity and unanimity. Everyone must agree on the same objective and the right way to bring it about. It will require selflessness, in other words. The Premier League has never previously been noted for anything of the sort, but we are living through strange days. There is always the possibility of a first time.