The Verdict on Project Restart plans to stage Premier League games at neutral venues


Dale Tempest (@SkyBet_Dale)

One of the great benefits of being a bookmaker is that for the last 18 years every day of my working life has involved the judgement of “risk”.

Without realising it we make decisions in our daily lives that require that personal gamble of should I or shouldn’t I. Life is one long “sliding door” (a great film if you’ve never seen it). If we want no risk in our lives then we’d never leave home.

I’m making this general point because Covid-19 is going nowhere. The infection rates are down significantly but we will have to live with it for many years to come. That means working out the safest way to return to a new normal and I see no reason once it is safe not to do so.

As Javier Tebas, the LaLiga president, said last week: “Football is just another industry trying to get back to work. It doesn’t have any more right to do so than construction or retail but nor does it have less.”

Of course in the context of the world pandemic football is completely meaningless but as Steve Parish the Crystal Palace chairman said this weekend, “it has the power to lighten lives”.

His article in this week’s Sunday Times was excellent. Thoughtful, measured and intelligent. Definitely worth a read.

Many will say the restart of football is all about money and it’s hard to argue it isn’t but if that cash tap isn’t turned on soon, although the Premier league will be fine the EFL and many clubs in the English game could be lost forever. I’m not sure that’s a risk we want to take, especially if we can edge forward safely while putting no pressure on public services.

If that’s to happen then the safest simplest and most sensible way to achieve a season restart and completion has to be at neutral venues. As we stand 29 games have been played so to be honest by now the league tables are pretty truthful about the abilities of the relevant teams. The fixture list may have thrown up a few odd quirks that seem unfair to some teams but no adjusted system can be perfect so in my view complaints about threatening the integrity of the competition are absolute rubbish.

I’d argue the complete opposite: the integrity is maintained by finishing the relevant games. There will be pros and cons for every team so let’s just get on with it. The fact West Ham oppose it tells you all you need to know and is even more reason to support it.

To avoid any relegation threat Karren Brady was trying to get the league voided within five minutes of the suspension. The Hammers really do have the most self-serving board you’ll find anywhere in the Premier League.

I think we all accept that crowds or large gatherings are a thing of the past for the foreseeable future, so to avoid any pressure on police resources games must be taken to neutral venues rather than the use of home stadiums.

As the Mayor of Liverpool said last week, you can’t expect a game in an empty stadium at Anfield that perhaps gives them the title not to create massive public order issues. He’s right, but if the title-winning game is, for example, in the Midlands it would at least give the police a chance of managing and locking down the wider stadium area. We must acknowledge that the new world we now exist in isn’t a perfect one, so compromises will be required by everyone involved.

Apart from the odd idiot, the public have really supported the Government’s lockdown restrictions and I’m sure as the lockdown is eased people will continue to be sensible and understanding about what can and can’t be done. If we don’t finish the remaining nine games soon then why would it be any easier to do it in August or September?

It’s time to finish the season in early June and learn some invaluable lessons so that we can then progress into the 2020/21 campaign.

Paul Higham (@SportsPaulH)

I think firstly with this, we must acknowledge that there are no answers to this unprecedented situation that will satisfy everyone perfectly, although already the self-interest of several Premier League teams is presenting stumbling blocks to finding an agreement.

Look, whatever way we go some teams will feel hard done by – and voiding the season altogether seems the last thing anyone wants, bar a few relegation-threatened outfits. Simply ending the season and settling matters with average points per game is more likely.

Liverpool are often the team mentioned but they’ve been largely quiet in discussions. The dominant way they all-but ended their 30-year title wait has already been ruined, there’ll be no final whistle euphoria at Anfield, no trophy lift in front of the fans and certainly no parade through packed-out streets of the city.

So handing them the title is the easiest decision to make – the more difficult problems are European places and relegation, which could both still have some twists and turns left in them over the final nine games.

Yes, playing at neutral grounds will be weird, but there’ll already be no fans so we’ve long since gone beyond the weird phase. The same teams opposing neutral grounds are the same ones worried about lost revenue and trying to wriggle out of relegation. You can’t have it both ways; if you want football back any time soon, and to pocket that TV revenue, then neutral venues are the way it’ll have to be.

A huge bugbear of mine is the time limit UEFA have put on making a decision, and how that argument is used for voiding or just ending the campaign and settling it as it stands. Fans won’t be back in stadia this year in my opinion, and with the threat of second waves of coronavirus, what makes the ‘new’ season that hasn’t even started yet any easier to get started than the nine-game one is to finish?

Play this season out, only when it’s safe, has always been the solution I’ve favoured – and I’m not too bothered when that would be either. Next season is next season and that can be amended accordingly once we know who plays in what division.

The ‘integrity of the competition’ issue is a real one, and it is unfortunate that some teams may have had harder fixtures and could have used a home crowd down the run-in, but that’s no reason to erase 29 games of hard work. If you’re in a position after 29 games you probably deserve to be.

I’m more concerned with player welfare – not many people seem to take that into account and how many will not want to play in these games while the coronavirus pandemic is still going strong and social distancing measures are still in place.

Yes, they’re paid a lot of cash but is that really an issue when faced with possibly putting your family and your own health in danger? So for me, safety is the number one priority. If we can do it safely, then play on, get some football back and if it has to be neutral venues so be it.

George Pitts (@GeorgePitts_)

It is strange when you think about how professional football was brought in to entertain an audience over a century ago and now these clubs are huge, huge businesses desperately looking at playing in empty theatres in order to stay running for the foreseeable.

Modern technology, though, means we can now be entertained around the world instead. And make no mistake: broadcasters and their deals is a big reason there is a determination to finish the 2019/20 season.

It has become clear in recent weeks how desperate the situation is within the game as well as out of it – and how the financial effect of the pandemic has forced football and many of its institutions into uncertainty. The finances involved mean they are eager to get the game going again, but it must be done in the safest possible manner.

As Paul and Dale state above, there are so many things to be considered but it is clear how thorough the authorities will be if and when the game resumes. The backlash otherwise, if something happened, would be frightening but deserving too.

Playing in empty stadiums is unfortunately going to become the new normal, you would guess, for the next six months at least and no stone should be left unturned for each and every matchday in making sure all the tests and distancing processes are in place.

How they do it with both clubs’ matchday squads, officials, medical and media teams, the list goes on, shows how big a task they face at these neutral venues.

It is a great point about how staging games behind closed doors at the clubs’ own grounds could still, unbelievably, attract fans outside, especially in Liverpool where a small section are still likely to gather to celebrate a first title in 30 years.

And that alone makes a solid case for staging it at neutral grounds.

Granted, home games behind closed doors would hold a bit of an advantage and they would lose that from their remaining games. Academy and reserve games on training grounds are good examples to look at with similar numbers in attendance. The favourable surroundings and knowing your own pitch well does help, but without a crowd it will cut that advantage by a big margin and they will have to accept that cannot be done in the current situation. So be it.

Not fair, they might argue? This whole pandemic has not been fair, but the world has had to adapt and the game should be no different.

How the neutral grounds work will be interesting. They will be screened environments and once everything is in place and the organisers find their flow, matchdays will become a little routine. But how often games are played on these pitches then has to go into consideration – or else teams who suffer relegation could be complaining about how a previous match damaged the surface and benefitted their rivals.

There will be a lot of cases like this where teams find a reason to complain and what all 20 top-flight clubs must do is come to an agreement on how it is done – and accept the on-field consequences. But getting them all on the same page seems a huge task.

But to only agree to it if relegation is off the table… that takes a little away from the case for finishing it, never mind the integrity.

Finishing the season is a must, in my opinion, but the last nine games will be seen as a separate league really, a mini tournament that is a far cry from the other 75% of the 2019/20 campaign. Every team will be in the same scenario and how they deal with it is up to them.

Golfer Padraig Harrington has recently been discussing a Ryder Cup without fans and he is spot on – the same can be said for football.

“The players don’t want it but we might have to take one for the world of team sport and put an event on that people can watch. It wouldn’t be the same for us but we’re craving sport on TV.”

Neutral venues will be something different, but we are going to have to get used to change in this whole thing and the sooner the Premier League is back, the better. As, the others say though, as long as it is done safely and properly. Seeing how the Bundesliga do it in the coming weeks could teach us a lot in regards to what can and cannot be done. But neutral grounds make sense and probably make the whole thing *slightly* easier.

As for the EFL and in particularly how Leagues One and Two go on remains to be seen. As Gary Neville noted on Sky Sports’ Football Show, these clubs largely rely on matchday revenue, so to play games behind closed doors to finish the season makes sense only for integrity and not financially – they will need to find help by another means and that is why Neville has been calling on the Premier League to help the lower league sides out. But that’s another discussion.


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