Premier League clubs are divided over the thorny issue of how to end a season cut short by coronavirus as they gather on Friday for another extraordinary meeting to try and staunch its impact.
Nearly six weeks after the last round of top-flight matches were played, a group of clubs have fallen behind a scheme to finish the season by June 30th, come what may. This idea is not part of the Premier League’s official planning, however, and has been met with criticism from other league members.
While not on the agenda for Friday’s meeting, due to be held by video conference, the June 30th proposal looks set to be brought forward by clubs for discussion. That is despite the fact that any date for football’s return remains contingent upon government advice, with the lockdown of UK homes and businesses extended on Thursday for at least another three weeks.
It is understood that as many as nine clubs are backing the June 30th plan, deeming it necessary to avoid players running out of contract and transferring before the season is finished. Such a situation is believed to affect up to 80 players in the division, and while Fifa recently made provisions for clubs to temporarily extend deals over the summer, some legal experts have advised this could be challenged under UK law.
There remains uncertainty inside the Premier League as to how such a plan would work out in practice, especially if it were not possible to complete all of the remaining 92 fixtures before July. The plan is not among those modelled by its football department, which has been tasked with drawing up alternative options for the season to end.
Speaking on Thursday, the Brighton chairman, Tony Bloom, said he was against the idea. "There does come a point when we can't keep waiting but I don't think June 30th is that point," he said.
“From our point of view, and the majority of Premier League clubs, we would very much like to finish the season; for the integrity of the league it would be very good to finish it. There’s talk about player contracts and sponsorship and it’s difficult to play beyond that but this situation is so unique and unprecedented every option should be looked at.”
Any proposal would ultimately need the vote of 14 of the league’s 20 clubs to succeed. A definitive decision is not expected to be taken on Friday, however. Following the last meeting, in which the Premier League attempted unsuccessfully to introduce a collective wage cut of up to 30 per cent on its players, this remote gathering has been billed as simply an “update meeting”, with the next due to take place in a fortnight’s time.
The debate over an expedited season brings into focus some of the many competing needs at play. These include: the issue of player contracts, the dispute regarding temporary pay cuts or deferrals during the crisis; and also sporting integrity with relegation, European qualification and, in the case of Liverpool, a first league title in 30 years at stake.
One further consideration is health and welfare. The refrain from the Premier League is that any return to competition will be determined by government advice and staff are in regular contact with Whitehall over the latest medical information. There is caution, though, with the knowledge that any return – even behind closed doors – is likely to carry distinct public health challenges, not least the amount of testing required to guarantee a safe environment for matches to take place.
Bundesliga clubs returned to training nearly a fortnight ago and the German top flight has an established plan to resume competition behind closed doors, perhaps as early as May. It is understood there has been no direct sharing of information between the Bundesliga and the Premier League, however, rather an acceptance that the spread of the pandemic means that countries are now on different paths as they seek a return to competition. – Guardian