AFTER months of debate and conjecture, this week’s meeting of Premier League clubs finally resolved that they definitely will come to a decision on how to finish this season’s football in England... Definitely.
Maybe unsurprisingly, in many respects it was reminiscent of UK PM Boris Johnson’s grand plan to return Britain to work, in that it was big on aspiration but a bit light on actual detail and in many cases contradictory.
It's not surprising that there is still confusion regarding the return to play. After all ‘Project Restart,’ the league’s framework to get the game back up and running, only came at the instigation of this Tory government's desire to see the 'nation's morale lifted by the return of football'.
To be fair to Project Restart, they have whittled their options down to two. The first sees them return to playing football, behind closed doors, come June. And the second option would see the league end now with the clubs' points total decided via a points-per-game formula based on an averaging out of the season’s results, a bit like the plan to resolve our Leaving Cert dilemma with a continuous assessment solution.
And like many students who will feel hard done for not having their chance to prove themselves by the big examination, so too the relegated sides of the Premier League will feel aggrieved at the idea of not having the opportunity to prove they had the wherewithal to save themselves on the field of play, rather than having their fate decided by the solution of an arithmetic equation.
This second solution does have the benefit of providing the ultimate social distancing and guarantee of player and staff safety. But it still will seem unfair to Bournemouth, Aston Villa, and Norwich who would find themselves relegated by a mathematical formula.
Man United too would feel aggrieved as they would miss out on Champions League qualification without getting a chance to influence the outcome. But that also depends on Man City losing their appeal to not be banned from the Champions League by UEFA.
This approach of calling quits on the season was adopted in France, where PSG were named La Ligue champions after only 27 matches played. However, Amiens and Lyon have threatened further action as the former gets relegated and the latter misses out on the Champions League based on their season's 'performance index'. Something the Premier League relegation sides might consider if the decision goes against them.
Maybe more important to the league than all the other issues combined in the second solution is the £350m in TV revenue they would forgo from Sky and BT, should the league not complete the requisite number of live televised games.
It is for that financial reason that the most plausible solution is still seen to be the one that sees them finish the remaining matches behind closed doors.
Of course, the obvious problem with this is that it returns players to the field of play and in close proximity, while the pandemic still rages on in the European country that has suffered the most casualties from the coronavirus.
The initial proposition offered by the British government suggested that the teams would quarantine themselves and train as a group for two weeks before they return to playing live games in neutral venues. And in this case, Wolves became the first club to start testing their players for the virus before going into isolation.
However, clubs have a problem with this first solution too as many, especially relegation-threatened sides, are not enthused by the idea of losing home-field advantage in their battle for Premier League survival.
The elephant in the room for this solution remains the fact that while there is no vaccine for Covid-19 there remains the very real threat of infection for the footballers and their families. A point made rather strongly by Newcastle loanee, Danny Rose, who in a social media tirade left no one in doubt about how he felt about going back to action, "I don’t give a fuck about the nation’s morale. People’s lives are at risk, you know what I mean? Football shouldn’t even be spoken about coming back until the numbers have dropped massively. It’s bollicks." An opinion agreed to by Man City’s Raheem Sterling but not in as colourful language.
As the day for return draws nearer, one suspects that more players will disclose their disquiet and it has been echoed by some sides in Germany and Spain who are already well advanced in their planned return to play. With Eibar players most outspoken of a return to La Liga action in Spain, a country that lost up to 30,000 of its citizens to Covid-19.
It's hard to blame anyone who would have misgivings about going back to work, no matter what the job, while there is still no cure on the horizon for Covid-19. Saying that, players have to realise that many ordinary people, in far less comfortable positions than they find themselves, have had no choice but to return to work this week on packed bus and train commutes, while others never had the choice but to work on while the pandemic was raging at its most vicious.
In a fair world, no one should be asked to do something if they are in genuine fear for their or their family's health and well-being, no matter what the job. And one would hope that exceptions would be made to players with genuine fears and objections. Realistically, few if any player would deny their chance to get back playing unless for a serious reason.
The clubs meet again on Monday, in the hope of finding a solution. Good luck to anyone trying to square this pandemic circle.