By Andrew Warshaw
May 12 – In a significant move that will be a massive boost to runaway leaders Liverpool and a potential blow to those at the other end of the table, the Premier League will not be declared null and void if the season cannot be completed, meaning the title will be awarded and three clubs relegated as usual.
While much of Monday’s Premier League video conference focussed on whether neutral grounds would be used, ruling out voiding the campaign was a key decision, particularly given opposition in some quarters to the so-called ‘Project Restart’.
Clubs including Watford, West Ham, Aston Villa and Brighton, have publicly opposed the proposal of playing the remaining 92 games at neutral venues amid reports that the current bottom six want the threat of relegation removed as a condition of supporting plans to play matches at neutral venues. Their argument is that doing so would damage the sporting integrity of the competition.
But FA chairman Greg Clarke told the 20 clubs that neither ‘void’ or ‘no relegation’ would be sanctioned by the governing body.
Such an assurance will be welcomed by those suspicious of relegation-threatened clubs acting in self-interest – and by teams at the top of the Championship who know they will now be promoted. Leeds United currently lead the table, seven points clear of the play-off places with nine matches to play.
Yet such is the mounting opposition to neutral grounds, according to The Times newspaper, that the Premier League will ask the government to reconsider that directive, put in place to avoid “large-scale social contact” outside stadiums, in order to return to a home-and-away setup.
With the government’s announcement that sport can return behind closed doors on June 1 at the absolute earliest, pending Covid-19 cases and deaths continuing to decline, the next stage in the proceedings will be this Thursday when talks are due to take place on whether neutral grounds are likely to be enforced or not.
Whilst endangered clubs are understandably keen to fulfil their home fixtures in their own stadiums, it also works the other way. Playing ‘away’ games on a neutral ground in theory gives them a better chance of picking up points than if they were playing in front of a hostile full house.
For the likes of Liverpool, Clarke’s comments could not be more timely.
Ever since England’s top flight was put on hold, Liverpool have been anxiously waiting for news on how the season will pan out. But the declaration that the campaign will definitely not be rendered ‘null and void’ will be cause for celebration and a huge relief for a club that has not won the title in the Premier League era but are virtually home and dry.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters conceded after Monday’s meeting that clubs discussed what might happen if the season could not be completed. “I’m happy to reveal (curtailment) was discussed for the first time but the contents of that discussion have to remain confidential. What I can say is that all of the talk was about finishing the season,” Masters said.
Were the season to have to be curtailed, the exact model for that, whether it be points per game or another system, has not yet been worked out. But after Clarke’s intervention, most clubs will be keen to be allowed to finish, not least those trying to escape the drop.
The Premier League, like every other European league, has to give UEFA details of their proposals by May 25.
“We talked about neutral venues – obviously it is the preference of all our clubs to play at home if at all possible, but all must be cognisant of what authorities are telling us and we will continue with that conversation,” Masters told reporters.
One area that was agreed was to allow players whose contracts run out at the end of June to extend their deals until the end of the season since any restart to the campaign would see matches played beyond the June 30 date, usually considered the formal end of the season.
FIFA has produced guidelines supporting contracts extensions and Masters confirmed: “What was agreed today is that players can extend their contracts beyond June 30 until the end of the season but it must be agreed by both parties and a later date can be scheduled for that; no later than June 23.”
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