The Premier League hopes “Project Restart” will move a step closer to becoming reality today when clubs hold an emergency meeting to vote on a return to group training amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Should at least 14 of the 20 clubs agree that safety protocols are sufficient, players are likely to return to a limited first phase of group training tomorrow.
Yesterday should have been the final day of the Premier League season but the coronavirus outbreak meant the league was suspended in March with 92 fixtures remaining.
The Government last week opened the door for the return of elite sport, but several hurdles remain before the Premier League can resume behind closed doors.
Clubs will have been encouraged, however, by the return of the Bundesliga this weekend - the first major soccer league in the world to resume after the lockdown.
Today’s conference call is the first hurdle.
Clubs need to agree the conditions for players to return to training under strict rules.
Safety measures will include tents where temperature checks will be conducted, strict hygiene criteria, no canteens and no showers. A maximum of five players will be allowed per pitch with tackling forbidden.
Players will be tested twice per week and are being asked to provide written approval that they have received and understood the club’s Covid-19 policy.
The prospect of clubs playing their remaining matches at neutral venues has receded with more than half speaking out against such a proposal.
Project Restart was originally looking at a June 12 resumption date but should the clubs agree and, if there is no rise in infections in the country, a return date of June 19 or June 26 appears the most likely.
With Britain’s virus death toll still rising by hundreds each day - the latest figure is 34,466 - the return of the Premier League has divided opinion.
Although the majority of players are said to be supportive, there have been dissenting voices, including Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose and Watford’s Troy Deeney.
Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Willian said: “Honestly, from what I can see, a lot of players - the majority, I’d say - are uncomfortable with the idea of returning right now.
“We’re really keen to return, we really miss playing and doing what we love. But it needs to be safe for us to do so.”
Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce said that while clubs are likely to agree to the first phase of group training to begin this week, June 12 was too early to start matches.
“We need enough preparation time to get these players into shape or they are just going to fall down like a pack of cards. Most of the managers have the same concerns,” Bruce told the Sunday Telegraph. “We would need at least six weeks.”
Watford manager Nigel Pearson warned that players lives could be in danger if the Premier League returns too soon.
Newcastle defender Danny Rose also expressed concerns, saying players’ health was more important than restarting the season.
“I’ve spoken to him (Rose) and he’s coming back as well,” Bruce said. “I don’t think there is a footballer out there who has done more for the NHS throughout this than Danny.
“If a player refuses to come in or play, I have sympathy for that and would understand it. You have to respect everybody’s personal views on it.”