Premier League plots tentative return path as players return in small groups

By Andrew Warshaw

May 19 – English Premier League clubs took another small but significant step towards resuming their season today when players were allowed to train in “small group” sessions, with a possible return to normal training next week.

The league held a conference call for all 20 clubs on Monday where the move was given unanimous backing even though there remains no firm date for the season to restart with mid-June still earmarked as the earliest possible date.

Strict protocols for small group training with social distancing were approved after the government eased lockdown restrictions in England. Up to five players will reportedly be allowed to work together on the pitch.

The Premier League said in a statement that the latest development was the “first step towards restarting the Premier League, when safe to do so.” The season was suspended in March with Liverpool leading by 25 points with nine games remaining.

Under the protocol, testing is due to take place twice weekly at clubs on up to 40 players, coaches and support staff.

“Strict medical protocols of the highest standard will ensure everyone returns to training in the safest environment possible,” the Premier League said. “The health and wellbeing of all participants is the Premier League’s priority, and the safe return to training is a step-by-step process.”

With UK corona-related deaths dwarfing every other country in Europe, the bottom line is that everything depends on the government waiting to see whether there is a spike in Covid-19 infections before giving the green light for fixtures to begin behind closed doors. Not surprisingly therefore, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said it was still too early to give a precise date.

“We have been focused on this staging post, it’s not a firm commitment, for June 12. What we are able to do today is basically to move forward on small group training,” Masters told reporters on a conference call. “Next week we are going to be discussing full contact training protocols.

“Once you know when you can start full contact training, and we’ve had a proper discussion with clubs about how much is required to create the fitness levels before they can start playing, we are then in a position to be able to confirm when the season start is.

“What we don’t want to do is continually move that start date so we haven’t changed it. We need to be flexible and acknowledge we are in a step-by-step process.”

Critics continue to protest that the cash-rich Premier League is putting money before lives. Failure to resume the season could cost around £750 million in lost revenue from broadcasters. Additionally, a raft of players have expressed concern about the health risks involved in trying to complete the remaining 92 matches of the season.

Masters countered that the league had done its best to create a safe environment.

“Clearly we cannot de-risk the entire thing. But I think what we have created is an extremely safe environment that is the first stage of a return to training. So hopefully we have reassured all players and managers on that basis,” he said, adding there would be further consultations ahead of each stage.

Richard Garlick, the league’s director of football, said there could be on-the-spot inspections to  ensure clubs adhere to new safety guidance.

“We are looking at bringing in our own independent audit inspection team that we’ll scale up over the next few days which will give us the ability to have inspections at training grounds to start with on a no-notice basis,” he said.

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