Premier League restart: Relegation, training and return dates discussed by CEO Richard Masters

Premier League CEO Richard Masters. The Guardian photo.

Is there a deadline for Premier League talks to end? Why do we have to explore neutral venues?

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters says he does not anticipate players vetoing a return to football after clubs pushed to scrap a proposal to end the season at neutral grounds.

Top-level sport in England could restart behind closed doors from June 1, as part of the government’s road map for exiting lockdown, but spectators may not be able to attend venues until a coronavirus vaccine is found.

In a wide-ranging follow-up to Monday’s Premier League shareholders meeting, Masters discussed with Sky Sports News and other media outlets about the next steps of ‘Project Restart’ in resuming the season, including:

  • No expectation of players vetoing return despite concerns
  • No club has asked for curtailment of season or for relegation to be scrapped
  • Plans over restart date for club training remain ‘flexible’; in line with ‘mood of supporters’
  • PL clubs have discussed need for four weeks of group training
  • Concept of isolating entire squads in a secure environment

Is there a deadline for Premier League talks to end?

“No. We’re not setting ourselves a deadline but clubs know we have to have a clear way forward and that decisions have to be made in order to create a clear path forward, so it’s an active discussion.”

Have any clubs said they want to curtail the season, and how many clubs said they want relegation scrapped if the season restarts?

“None and none. No [clubs have said they want relegation scrapped], not in our meetings. In either of [the] meetings, last week or today.

“All I can go on is what we’re discussing in our meetings. And you specifically asked about scrapping relegation while playing out the season, and that is never been raised in our formal meetings at all.”

What do you need to do to convince the authorities to allow clubs to use their own stadiums and not neutral venues?

“It’s not a matter of convincing, because we need to listen to each other. I think some of our clubs would argue that in relation to policing their own fans that they have a good relationship with them, and that they encourage their own fans not to turn up outside their home venues while they’re playing behind closed doors.

“They’re in a better position to control that, but it’s not a matter of convincing, this has to be a decision that’s come to mutually.”

Given Bundesliga clubs will use their own stadiums – why do we have to explore neutral venues?

“It is… well you saw today, I’d like to refer to if I could, the note in the recovery strategy, which says ‘for broadcast, while avoiding the risk of large-scale social contact’.

“Obviously it is people’s jobs and responsibilities to work out what the best way of managing the risk of supporters turning up outside football matches, and that’s why we need to listen very carefully to the advice.”

From a fan safety point of view?

“It’s about assuring the fans, about creating as little risk as possible in relation to fans coming to attend the matches outside a behind closed doors environment.

“Obviously from the authorities’ perspective, some authorities think that playing those matches at approved stadia, not the home venues, is the safest way forward.”

Is the neutral venue proposal a deal-breaker for clubs?

“We have spoken to our clubs today about this topic. I have said it’s a live topic and we will continue to discuss it.”

What role will government play in finalising your medical protocols?

“They have been put together in consultation with a wide range of people including people within inside government and advisors to government.

“Sport has been working with government generally on the production of the baseline document from which individual sports have been able to create their own protocols. At some point, we have presented our draft protocols to government and they will look over them and give them the thumbs up before we can clarify them.

“I’m not sure whether that baseline document has been published, or will be.”

Can you reveal the division on neutral venues? We’ve been told bottom six, is it more?

“As I said at the beginning, all clubs would prefer to play at home and they accept it’s an issue to be addressed. That pretty much summarises it.

“It’s fair to say that it is not an issue which is unique to any part of the league.”

What happens if you can’t persuade authorities to change? Will clubs accept neutral venues?

“The discussions are ongoing. The dialogue is ongoing. It’s not finished yet and nobody is saying they are going to do anything unless this issue is resolved.

“That’s not the situation we’re in and I want to make that absolutely clear. No-one is saying, ‘We won’t play unless certain conditions are met’. That’s not the case. What they want the Premier League to do is have an open dialogue about this topic. We don’t want to run that dialogue publicly.”

Is this a chance to unite Premier League clubs?

“I wouldn’t characterise it in that way. What there was, was a view that we were better together, better off talking through one voice and better off acting at all times like a collective. That was a unanimous view.”

Players and medics have expressed concerns. Are you confident of carrying them with you?

“I think I’ve said there was a lot of discussion today about players and how important they are and how the clubs are determined as part of the consultation process and that their concerns and questions are heard. They will be later this week.

“We’re really just talking about the return to training protocols. In isolation it’s its own decision. Whenever professional athletes go back to training the opportunity arises for them to train in different ways.

“The clubs have been very clear that the players have to be consulted properly and that their concerns have to be heard. The first meetings are scheduled for later this week.”

What happens if players test positive like at Dynamo Dresden?

“With regards to our training protocols, if a player were to test positive, providing he has been socially distanced, as anticipated in these training protocols, then that player would obviously be isolated for a period.

“There’s no need for the rest of the group to be isolated as they would have been socially distant.”

Have clubs discussed curtailment of the season?

“The discussions about curtailment are contingency planning. All the discussions are about completing the season but it is prudent to have a look at what might happen in alternative scenarios. Those conversations are confidential.”

Was the atmosphere of the meeting less fractious?

“I never attended a truly fractious meeting, they’re always conducted professionally. So I think when we’re dealing with some of the challenges and complications of COVID-19 it’s understandable there are differences of opinions between clubs.

“The purpose of shareholder meetings is to have discussions as a group and as a collective. I think last week was a good meeting and so is this.

“I think now, given the way the clubs came together today, I feel people can see the momentum and some of the issues that people want resolved and discussed in those private forums are now starting to be addressed and discussed and I can see that momentum building. I don’t recognise the way you characterised it but that’s my version of it.”

June 12 target to return to action still on course?

“I really wouldn’t want to make a prediction now. Clearly we have plans but they’re all flexible. I think before you’ve even decided to go back to training that it isn’t right to start to talk about when we think we’re going to get back to playing.

“There are many steps to be taken, many hurdles to get over before we get to that point. And of course part of the government’s announcement (on Sunday) was about the danger of the direction of travel of Covid itself that might frustrate those plans.

“So I think it’s too early for us to talk about it, we want to remain in step with government and the authorities. We want to remain in step with the mood of football supporters.

“I think really the talk at the moment should be about the tentative steps we are taking now that the announcements have been made about going back to training and only once players have been consulted.”

Could we see first phase of (group) training from May 18?

“It is possible, yes.”

Do you see teams being relegated at the end of the season?

“I think I’ve said that, if the season plays out, no-one has suggested, or talked about, relegation not being in play. So, on that, basis, yes.”

And if it does not, what’s the situation?

“You’re getting into the discussions we had today about curtailment and the positive decisions that need to be taken. Those discussions are confidential.”

Two-thirds majority for a change – how does the balance lie?

“I would rather talk about the discussions about playing out the season than talking about relegation.”

If you do play out the season, and someone were to raise the prospect of relegation, is that something you’d listen to?

“We’re not anticipating that being raised.”

How many players will not be able to play due to underlying conditions?

“I don’t have that information, no.

“I think it’s part of the constant dialogue we have with clubs and certainly, as we look to go back to training, the fitness of players will be part of what we discuss with the clubs, absolutely.”

Are you confident in testing reliability?

“Absolutely, we are. I believe it’s a sister company of the one the Bundesliga are using. It meets the highest standards and has been tested so we are confident, yes.”

Do players have the ability to veto a return if they are not comfortable?

“That’s a hypothetical situation. We are not anticipating it and, obviously, what we are trying to do through all the discussions we’re having through the medical groups and with government with their medical advisors is create the safest possible environment for a return to training for players, for managers, for their coaches and the other staff that need to be involved.

“So we think we are going to be able to create that safe environment. But we need to talk to players about it. So as I said earlier, it is right the players voice their concerns. It is right that they will have concerns and questions and we need to hear those first.”

When will contact training return?

“If you’re asking what happens in a situation contact training, that is kind of assessed on a case by case. It does depend on what sort of contact because obviously you’re trying to ensure the players keep themselves safe even during that contact training situation and that would have to be dealt with on a case by case basis.”

Has the concept of isolating entire squads in a secure environment to the end of season being discussed? And if not, why not?

I think it probably has been discussed, but it is not the favoured route at the moment and I guess ultimately, in the judgement of medical professionals, which I am not, they think that the formula they have created is it safe and appropriate.”

Are they going to build actual testing centres at each training ground, has that been discussed?

“They are not testing centres. They are places where the testing can be done. I think it would be a stretch to call them testing centres. When testing is arranged it needs to be done in a sort of secure environment. So temporary facilities are envisaged.”

There’s a fairly high proportion of BAME players in the Premier League and there is emerging data that they suffer disproportionately from COVID-19. Are there any conditions in the protocol to cover that?

“It is an emerging science and we have to stay close to that. All I would say is that obviously we are trying to create a safe environment where fit young men from whatever background they come from, the science seems to suggest they would be safe, particularly in the environment that we are creating for them. But, in regards to that science, we have to stay close to it and we have to recognise it and follow it.”

What further approval is required to start contact training?

“If the question is, ‘what additional protocols need to be developed for the contact training, that would come only after small groups and socially distanced group training? That is a development as I understand it.”

How many weeks’ group training before it is safe to play? How many positive cases would be sufficient to allow a squad to suspend a game?

“We’ve not alighted on a formula for either of those.

“The latter hasn’t been discussed and the former, it’s about the building blocks. How long before we can go back into full contact training, how much of that is required, there is a debate going on. One thing is for sure: all clubs will have to be safe and secure in the knowledge that their players are going to be fit before a decision on going back on the pitch is taken, given that they have had such a long lay-off.

“We have talked about four weeks of training but haven’t agreed yet as we haven’t agreed to go back to training yet.”

By Sky Sports News

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