By Andrew Warshaw
May 29 – It won’t look the same, it won’t feel the same. But the millions for whom football is the best possible drug to lift spirits during the Covid-19 crisis will be delighted by the news.
The Premier League is back, on June 17 to be precise – roughly at the same time as Serie A and La Liga – even though Britain has the highest corona-related death rate in the world outside the United States.
Exactly 100 days after the season was shut down, it will get back under way with Aston Villa v Sheffield United and Manchester City v Arsenal in a midweek double-header — two games that were postponed during earlier rounds. That will be followed by a full fixture list on the weekend of June 19-21.
All 92 remaining matches are to be broadcast live in the UK including, in a significant departure from the past, four games free to air on the BBC, normally limited to a highlights show. All fixtures will of course be played behind closed doors under strict safety protocols but in another important move, restrictions on the broadcasting of Saturday 3pm games are also being lifted.
The Premier League was suspended on March 13 but teams recently took up small group training sessions and clubs voted unanimously this week to return to contact training, including tackling, giving them just over a fortnight to prepare.
“Today we have provisionally agreed to resume the Premier League on Wednesday 17 June. But this date cannot be confirmed until we have met all the safety requirements needed, as the health and welfare of all participants and supporters is our priority,” said Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters.
“Sadly, matches will have to take place without fans in stadiums, so we are pleased to have come up with a positive solution for supporters to be able to watch all the remaining 92 matches. The Premier League and our clubs are proud to have incredibly passionate and loyal supporters. It is important to ensure as many people as possible can watch the matches at home.”
But is it only about the fans? Failure to resume the season could reportedly cost the Premier League around £750 million in lost revenue from broadcasters, as it is they will still have to rebate about £340 million.
Critics of a resumption argue that money rather than sporting criteria is the real driving force. With contact training for players only just approved and the rate of Covid-rated deaths and infections still significantly higher than anywhere else in Europe, there are fears that that authorities may have given the green light far too swiftly.
For the professional game in England and its clubs it is about survival in a sustainable condition. Club losses are inevitable, as is an impact on player salaries. The Premier League employs about 100,000 people across its executive and clubs. With the country slowly returning to work, they are as well.
With Boris Johnson’s government putting almost daily spin on Britain’s ability to deal with the crisis despite blunder after blunder, many take the view that just as the country has lagged behind the rest of Europe when it comes to Covid-19 so the football season should have been delayed further – and possibly not even played at all. Even some top-flight players have gone on record as rubbishing the argument that bringing football back will raise the morale of the nation.
The decision to restart will be a particular relief, however, to Liverpool, bidding to lift their first league title in 30 years and leading the table by 25 points. It is understood clubs have agreed to a provisional end date of Saturday, 25 July, which would be in time for Uefa’s club competitions to resume.
In terms of the FA Cup, the quarter-finals have been pencilled in for the weekend of June 27-28 with the final set to take place on Saturday, August 1.
All of this, of course, depends on the rate of infection remaining stable or going down and whether health guidelines are followed. At the first sign of a spike, or of an increased number of positive cases among players and staff, the season could be curtailed for good.
On the plus side, for a few hours a day at least, fans can forget about the incompetence and negligence of the government or what horrors might still lie ahead – and indulge again in the national past-time, one of most potent drugs of all.
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