London (AFP) – Premier League clubs received a boost to their hopes of completing the season on Monday as the government published a «roadmap» that could see the return of elite sport in England from June 1.
As the 20 English top-flight clubs met for further talks on «Project Restart», ministers announced plans to ease the coronavirus lockdown.
Under step two of that process, which cannot begin any earlier than June 1, sporting events would be allowed «to take place behind closed doors for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact».
Such events will only be allowed if sufficient progress is made in limiting the spread of the virus.
Premier League clubs had been planning for a return to action no earlier than the week beginning June 8.
English top-flight clubs were talking on Monday about a possible resumption despite growing disquiet among players over safety issues and divisions over proposals on how to finish the season.
Before the resumption of matches can be considered, protocols need to be agreed on how to return to group training safely and on how the Premier League would deal with positive tests.
Brighton confirmed on Sunday that a third member of their squad had tested positive.
Cases have also been found in squads in Germany, where the Bundesliga is due to restart this weekend, as well as Italy, Spain and Portugal in recent days.
German second-tier side Dynamo Dresden placed their entire squad into a 14-day quarantine on Saturday after discovering two new cases of the virus.
However, five La Liga players who tested positive have been quarantined at home, while their teammates continue to train in preparation for a return to action.
– ‘We are just people too’ –
In England, players have voiced their concerns at the prospect of being rushed back into training and, eventually, into playing a contact sport at a time when the rest of the public remain encouraged to abide by social-distancing guidelines.
The UK has been one of the worst-hit countries in the global pandemic, with the government officially recording nearly 32,000 deaths of people who had tested positive for COVID-19.
«We are just people too,» tweeted Norwich midfielder Todd Cantwell on Sunday.
The Premier League’s desire to overcome so many obstacles to complete the campaign is rooted in economic necessity.
Clubs stand to lose an estimated £1 billion ($1.2 billion) if the season is not finished, £760 million of which comes from TV contracts that would be satisfied if games were played behind closed doors.
Financial worries are also causing divisions among the 20 top-flight clubs, which could end the chances of a return to action.
A group of clubs near the bottom of the table are fiercely opposed to plans to play the remaining 92 games at neutral venues.
«With all these compromises and health risks we are asked to finish a competition that bears no resemblance to the one we started,» Watford’s chairman and chief executive Scott Duxbury told the club’s website.
«So is this fair? Does it have any semblance of sporting integrity? Of course not.»
Executives at Brighton, West Ham and Aston Villa have also publicly opposed the neutral-venues plan with the suspicion they will only back down if there is an agreement to scrap relegation this season.
However, that could cause even more financial hardship to the league as a whole.
Broadcasters are not keen on spending hundreds of millions for a series of glorified friendlies should the jeopardy of relegation be removed.
English Football League chairman Rick Parry suggested last week that legal action would be launched if promotion were denied to three clubs from the second-tier Championship.
Supporters face a long wait to be allowed to attend matches, with the latest guidelines recognising a return to sport in front of a crowd «may only be fully possible significantly later depending on the reduction in numbers of infections».