Playing Premier League games behind closed doors may be the only solution to the coronavirus pandemic
As another football-less week passes, more angst begins to ravage supporters worldwide. The Premier League was supposed to return after a brief three-week absence next weekend, but after crisis talks between top-flight chiefs were concluded last Thursday, that date has now been pushed back to April 30.
Nobody expected the league to restart on April 4; everyone knew that the aforementioned date was merely a rough guideline used to contain panic, while further discussions between the powers that be took place and something which resembled a solution could be thrown together.
It is unlikely that the Premier League and all other professional football leagues in England will resume at the end of next month, with it more likely that a date in either May or June will be when we are treated to the return of the beautiful game. Indeed, there is hope that in six weeks’ time we do see football’s return, and life can start to return to a version of normality again, though it must be said that the chances are slim.
Six-week summer showdown
We recently wrote an article discussing the possibility of a six-week ‘summer showdown’ being introduced to finalise the 2019-20 Premier League campaign. With Euro 2020 being postponed until next year, it does now mean that the calendar is free for domestic football to be completed during the summer - commencing at the start of June and running through until mid-July, leaving a four-week break available before the start of next season.
This seems like a good idea on the face of it, and most definitely the best option available to the Premier League at this moment in time - IF football is unable to resume any earlier. But what if the government is still unable to sanction mass gatherings by the time June 1 rolls around? It is a distinct possibility considering the fact that the coronavirus pandemic in the UK is reportedly set to spike during the summer months.
Should this be the case, there will be no other option but to void the entire campaign, which would be a complete travesty for many clubs, completely undoing the good work they have achieved this term. Namely Liverpool, who would be deprived of their first title win in 30 years despite being 25 points clear at the Premier League summit and just two wins away from mathematically winning the title.
Season completed behind closed doors?
So, what other options are available to avoid the possibility of a voided season? Not many, to be honest. There is one, however: playing the remaining nine-ten games behind closed doors.
Fans are the lifeblood of football; without them, the sport is soulless. We all know this and have been reminded of it first hand of late, with several Champions League ties being played out in empty stadiums due to safety concerns. But, if it is a decision between playing the remainder of the campaign behind closed doors, or not playing it at all, the former wins every day of the week, hands down.
PFA deputy chief Bobby Barnes recently revealed that there may now be “no alternative” with regards to this matter. Initially, mooted plans to complete the season behind closed doors were shafted by players and clubs alike, but as time has progressed and the situation in England has evolved, most - if not all - have now come around to the idea that this could be the only viable solution.
Opting to take this route would ensure that the current campaign is completed, thus crowning Liverpool deserved Premier League champions for the first time in history, and offering each of the clubs currently scraping it out at the foot of the division the opportunity to escape the clutches of relegation.
It would also mean that Leeds and West Brom could be fairly promoted from the Championship - something which was as good as confirmed prior to football’s postponement a fortnight ago - and ensure that the likes of Fulham, Brentford, Nottingham Forest, Preston and all of the other sides currently gunning for the play-offs in the country’s second-tier were all given a fair chance of succeeding in their quest to achieve top-flight status next term.
Sure, it would be strange without any fans inside the stadiums, cheering on their beloved teams and yes, it would somewhat dilute the achievements of a league triumph or relegation escape. But above all else, it would allow all of the above mentioned scenarios to actually happen - something every football fan across the globe is yearning for during these unprecedented times.
Fans would understand
From a football supporter’s standpoint, welcoming the sport back on April 30, but with the condition that each of the remaining nine-ten matches in the Premier League have to be played behind closed doors, brings comfort.
What is happening in the world right now is much bigger than sport, though football is one of the few things on this planet that can help when it comes to bringing joy and welcoming distractions to a population which is currently experiencing a substantial degree of fear, uncertainty and, put bluntly, sheer boredom.
Having football back on our screens would be welcomed with open arms by the majority of the population, who would equally understand why the sport’s return is attached to a clause which permits fans from being able to attend stadiums whilst these remaining games take place.
Potential issues with this idea
There is of course a degree of scepticism involved in this plan. Many believe that playing games behind closed doors will just encourage fans to congregate outside stadiums before, during and after fixtures; policing it could turn ugly.
It is also all well and good for the Premier League to commence the campaign in six weeks’ time - behind closed doors - but if the rest of Europe’s elite leagues do not follow suit then what does that mean for the Champions and Europa League? If other leagues are not resuming their domestic campaigns amid safety concerns, they cannot be expected to fulfill their remaining commitments in Europe, it’s completely out of the question.
Then there is the question regarding players and when they are able to train as a squad again. At the moment the country is in complete lockdown, meaning gatherings of more than two people are not allowed, completely ruling out training sessions for football clubs across England. This is not expected to last for longer than three weeks while the government attempts to monitor and control the pandemic, but nothing about this situation is guaranteed.
If clubs are unable to resume training in the next month, then football’s projected return at the end of April - which already seems ambitious - will be completely ruled out, thus ending all hopes of the campaign returning, behind closed doors or otherwise.
Safety is paramount, but a solution needs to be found
At the moment, all of this is just a possibility; a mere option to be explored by the Premier League and FA in the upcoming weeks and months. However, the more time it takes for this situation to be resolved, the less time there is for this season to be completed. The health and safety of players, staff, fans and the media are paramount and to rush a decision would prove both foolish and extremely dangerous. Every option has to be carefully considered and meticulously planned before a decision can be confirmed.
With that said, nobody wants to see a voided campaign (but maybe for the odd die-hard Everton supporter), and this situation does need to be resolved, somehow. If things don’t start to improve in the upcoming weeks - therefore football’s scheduled return looks as if it will be pushed back even further - then the Premier League have a huge decision on their hands: either wait it out and gamble, and hope that the campaign can be finished in the summer (June-July), or resume proceedings behind closed doors on April 30. At this moment in time, taking a risk on the former seems like it could prove to be the wrong move.
We all want football back and for the season to be completed, fairly. If that’s to be at the expense of a bit of lost atmosphere, then so be it.