Premier League in limbo as clubs wait for government guidelines

April 17 – English Premier League clubs say they still remain committed to finishing the current season but have stopped short of imposing a June 30 deadline for a resumption while lockdown restrictions remain in place because of Covid-19.

The clubs were expected to discuss the latest possible date at which fixtures might begin during a video conference today but instead discussed “possible scheduling models” adding that  “all dates are tentative” – basically leaving them in limbo.

All top-flight clubs were represented on the video call during which, sensibly, no date was announced until public health authorities give the green light. The issues of pay cuts and transfer windows were also not debated.

A Premier League spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware of the distress COVID-19 is causing and our thoughts are with all those directly affected by the pandemic.

“In common with other businesses and industries, the Premier League and our clubs are working through complex planning scenarios. We are actively engaging with stakeholders, including broadcast partners, and our aim is to ensure we are in a position to resume playing when it is safe to do so and with the full support of the Government.

“The health and wellbeing of players, coaches, managers, club staff and supporters are our priority and the League will only restart when medical guidance allows.

“Today’s shareholders’ meeting provided an opportunity to discuss possible scheduling models. It remains our objective to complete the 2019/20 season but at this stage all dates are tentative while the impact of COVID-19 develops.

“In response to the pandemic, the Premier League, our clubs and players have provided vital support for communities and the NHS and will continue to do so after matches recommence.”

Legal experts have re-iterated just how difficult any decision will be for a variety of complex reasons.

Simon Leaf, head of sport at at Mishcon de Reya, explained: “Inevitably, individual clubs will be looking at the different scenarios that are on the table. They’ll need to make a difficult judgment call as to what would be in their best interests, given not only their current league position, but also where they stand under their individual and collective commercial contracts with players and external third parties. Under English law, it wouldn’t be possible to force players to continue to play beyond the 30th June date, which has received so much attention recently, nor would it be possible force them into taking wage cuts or deferrals – both of which could be frustrating for many clubs.

“For now, it looks as though clubs will continue to voluntarily ask players to take such steps. However, clubs, players and agents will be all too aware that there are strict FIFA regulations that apply internationally, which prevents clubs from putting pressure on players in this way. We could end up seeing clubs not only facing censure from the football authorities but also players legitimately being able to walk away from their contracts and joining other clubs early as a result of such pressure.

“One of the other shadows that is hanging over many clubs is the spectre of breaching strict, league-specific Financial Fair Play rules which, while UEFA has indicated are likely to be relaxed for those competing in UEFA competitions, are still applicable to those in the Premier League and Football League. We have seen several clubs reverse their decision on using the Government’s furlough scheme and instead rely on further cash injections from their owners, but these clubs will need to tread carefully until the Premier League and Football League categorically confirm that the FFP rules will be relaxed at a domestic level. They are effectively trapped between the rock of doing the right thing by staff and players by continuing to pay salaries and the hard place being a potential fine or points deduction.

“The force majeure clauses in the contracts with commercial third parties are another potential legal minefield that will need to be navigated with caution. Many sponsors (and potentially external broadcasters) may find that they have the right to walk away from lucrative deals if the lockdown persists into May – as effectively, many of these agreements will contain longstop dates that allow the paying party to walk away if they haven’t been able to enjoy their rights for an extended period of time. This will no doubt be concentrating minds in boardrooms and club legal departments across the country.”

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