The Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ has taken huge strides forward this week and league officials are still eyeing a return in June – although that is far from certain.
Now the UK Government are set to approve guidelines outlining what contact training could look like within the existing rules of social distancing before the clubs vote on Tuesday.
This could be the biggest day in the entirety of Project Restart so far – any more delays would put serious pressure on the league’s hopes of finishing the season.
As it stands, the league is still targeting a June 12 restart, but that is likely to be pushed back. The Premier League is expected to speak to players, managers and other stakeholders across the league in smaller groups over the weekend while the final protocols are finalised ahead of the Tuesday vote in order to allay any fears.
This is a crucial juncture in the process as league officials try to keep the process on track.
Premier League shareholders voted unanimously on Monday in favour of a return to socially distanced training, with players allowed to work together in groups of five in 75-minute sessions from Tuesday.
To start the week, out of the 746 tests completed, only six came back positive, a total of 0.8 per cent.
Three of those came from Watford, where reluctance over a return to action remains strong, particularly from club captain Troy Deeney.
Deeney’s five month old son has breathing difficulties and he feels going back to work would put him at an increased risk of unnecessary exposure.
He noted the fears that many BAME players have about resuming their jobs, given that Covid-19 disproportionately affects people from those backgrounds.
Deeney said: ‘It only takes one person to get infected within the group and I don’t want to be bringing that home.
‘My son is only five months old, he had breathing difficulties, so I don’t want to come home to put him in more danger.’
He added: ‘For black, Asian and mixed ethnicities, they’re four times more likely to get the illness, they’re twice as likely to have long-lasting illnesses — is there anything extra, additional screening, heart stuff to see if people have got problems with that? No. OK, well I feel that should be addressed.
‘I can’t get a haircut until mid-July but I can go and get in a box with 19 people and go and jump for a header and nobody could answer the questions, not because they didn’t want to, just because they don’t know the information.’
And Danny Rose was also an outspoken critic, saying: ‘I don’t want to be complaining about everything — just the fact that people are suggesting we should go back to football, like we’re guinea pigs or lab rats.
‘We’re going to experiment this phase and see if it works or not. I can imagine people at home saying, “Well they earn that amount of money so they should be going back”.
‘For stuff like that, I think, “Is it worth the hassle?” I could be potentially risking my health for people’s entertainment and that’s not something I want to be involved in, if I’m honest.’
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante is another who has declined a return to training but the majority of players around the country have laced up their boots again.
Pundits such as Graeme Souness and Jamie Carragher have empathised with Deeney and Co but argued that the process in place is working and is correct.
Carragher said training grounds were the safest place to be, given the stringent testing measures.
And Souness compared it with the Bundesliga in Germany, which successfully returned to competitive action and has quarantined those who test positive.
‘I think we have witnessed it in Germany, people have proven positive and they have gone into isolation and they are getting on with their league and I think the same would happen with us,’ he said.
‘Hopefully when we get back to playing then the guys who don’t feel comfortable can garner some confidence. But it is an individual choice, people can’t fall out with players if they don’t choose to come back at this time.’
There were images this week from teams up and down the country returning to the small-group training.
The likes of Liverpool and Tottenham extensively documented the work at their training grounds with a number of players seemingly in high spirits, pictured gleefully working with the ball again.
Despite the legitimate fears over returning from some, many have felt the latest phase of the Project Restart process has gone smoothly.
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber said: ‘I think it’s a really good foundation. ‘Hopefully the players are feeling it’s as safe as it can be… (and have) a little bit of confidence today that they didn’t have a week ago.’
Manchester United captain Harry Maguire spoke was overwhelmingly positive about his experience of the precautions in place.
He said: ‘It’s been a strange few months, but it has been a protocol which the club has followed. It seems such a safe environment,’ centre back Maguire, 27, said.
‘It’s our first day back today, but it seems so safe and everyone is respecting it so well, so long may that continue and I’m sure no one will have any problems.’
United also revealed the enormous financial impact the coronavirus has had on the club. Chief financial officer Cliff Baty explained the bleak situation to investors in a video conference call.
He said: ‘For Manchester United, we have estimated the reduction to be around £20million for a full season of 38 games.
‘At the third quarter, we have provided for a £15million reduction to our broadcasting revenues to reflect this impact for the 29 games played to-date.’
A week that was generally positive for the Premier League was blighted at the start by the news that Chelsea and England star Callum Hudson-Odoi was arrested on suspicion of rape after a model he met online called police and said she was attacked at his Battersea apartment.
He was released on bail and has made no comment on the matter but a friend has said he denies wrongdoing.
The Premier League will now be turning their attention to a critical week in their bid to put on competitive games next month behind closed doors.
Protocols for a return to full-contact training are currently under consideration by the government. They will be voted on at the Premier League shareholders meeting next Tuesday, a significant hurdle to overcome given the heightened fears many players have about the next stage.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has revealed that those plans may even be given approval by the end of this week.
He said: ‘I hope, subject to the sign-off by Public Health England and others, we will then later this week, very shortly, get the guidance about how we can have training in a contact environment, this is for elite sports, so they can start to build-up.
‘The final stage would then be the guidelines as to whether they can resume behind closed doors. In doing that we have been guided by the health advice and I can update you again, today, for the fourth time, there were meetings between elite sports and Public Health England to find out how we can do it safely.
‘If we can do it safely I’d like us to be able to get it up and running towards mid-June if that is possible.’
Senior sources have said that phase two will comprehensively cover what happens with a player if they test positive once they have returned to full contact training, an area of huge interest given the possible legal ramifications.
Players are likely to have to sign a document to return to full-contact training if approved.
It is understood that the plans will be presented to small groups of captains and managers, rather than hold two large meetings to convey the information which proved to be difficult to manage last week.
The approval of phase two will dominate the agenda on Tuesday and if clubs reject the measures proposed it would be a significant blow to Project Restart. If passed, then players could return to full contact training on Wednesday.