Before the problems with Project Restart are placed under the microscope, let’s make something clear: this is one writer who actually wants to see this season completed. While nothing would humour me more than watching Liverpool being denied a title due to a void campaign, the reality is football needs to come back.
This opinion will be immediately met with disdain. For many, the suggestion sport returns before coronavirus has been eradicated is preposterous. They see it as the money in football coming before the nation’s health.
There are valid points in such arguments against the resumption of the Premier League. But with any risk, the handling of it is played off against the side effects of continued suppression. There has to be a point where the advantages of resuming football – or sport in general – outweighs the potential negatives.
Addressing the financial elephant in the room. Yes, there should be enough money in the game to survive such a setback. FIFA has a billion in its rainy day fund. But sport is business and businesses can be self-serving. Not all clubs will make it through the other side if the delay continues for too long.
Resuming the top flight could have a knock-on effect when it comes to redistributing wealth to the lower leagues. It’s easier to make the rich more benevolent when it’s a condition of them making money again.
A return of televised games would also help pacify a restless nation. With each passing day, the chances of people sticking to the stay at home guidelines diminishes. If they made games free-to-air – say, a couple each day as they chew through the outstanding games in the pile – it will subdue a large portion of the nation.
To make it work safely – and this is where the Premier League cannot get it wrong – it would be ideal to have a single location for all teams and support staff. Hosting all games in a closed village, with everyone tested going in and remaining in complete isolation from the outside world. It’d be a World Cup style tournament with Premier League and FA Cup games.
The problem with this idea is teams will say playing at neutral venues calls into question the integrity of the competition. It is a valid point. Why should a club like Watford face relegation because they lost home advantage? The argument it’s the same for everyone is weakened by the fact it hasn’t been the same throughout the entirety of the competition.
Even if officials agreed to allow teams to play behind closed doors at their usual stadium, the question of integrity still stands. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) has amended the rule on the number of permitted substitutions for competitions that will be completed within this calendar year.
Being able to make five subs instead of three puts a different take on the game. Those with bigger squads will clearly benefit and it’s a major rule change that only affects a part of the season. All the rules have to be the same from start to finish. The Premier League do not need to adopt this rule, but you can bet they will.
IFAB has also stated VAR can be turned off for the resumption of competitions. It’s the only coronavirus death that’s worth celebrating but further evidence that the proposed returning Premier League will be too far away from the competition that began last August.
There’s also the problem of player contracts. The squads submitted for the Premier League will become invalidated if players move upon expiration of their contract. A little more of that remaining integrity slips away.
So it seems there are two clear choices:
Bring back football, behind closed doors but using existing grounds, keep VAR (never thought I’d type that), and ignore IFAB rule changes.
Void the season as it can’t be completed in a manner that maintains the competition’s consistency and sporting integrity.
No clubs should be relegated, no titles handed out. Champions League places determined by average-points-per-game to calculate remaining fixtures. Although, there’s surely a UEFA coefficient system that can be used to ensure clubs like Leicester miss out but Arsenal and Manchester United can return.
However they wrap up this season (or don’t), some forward-thinking needs to occur before a new campaign begins. There’s a chance coronavirus could have a winter revival. The next Premier League season needs to be set up in a way it can deal with another lockdown without its integrity being called into question.
The country needs the distraction of sport but it needs competitions to be safe, sustainable and authentic.