In the next few weeks, it looks increasingly likely that the Premier League will return to action. But not as we know it.
In an attempt to resume action in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, discussions have centred around the safest ways possible to kickstart the season and play it out to a conclusion – from where to host matches to who can attend.
A lot of decisions are still up in the air, but what we can be certain of is that it will be unlike any version of top-flight football supporters are used to.
Football could be set to return in the UK in the coming weeks, but a lot will have changed
While the watchful gaze of the footballing world will be falling on the Bundesliga and their attempts to navigate the final part of the campaign during the crisis, England’s top flight will also be plotting its own return – with the wheels already fully in motion.
The biggest indication that football is set to return in Britain is the sight of players already returning to training.
On Monday, 47 days since the league was officially suspended on March 13, both Arsenal and West Ham players were allowed back into the training grounds. However, the new schedules for stars are a clear indication that they are returning to a very different setup.
At Arsenal’s London Colney base, players arrived at staggered intervals, permitted only to drive by themselves to and from the ground. Each were given their own ball and their own pitch to train on.
David Luiz arrives at training after Arsenal became the first club to invite their players back
West Ham players observed similar restrictions, each taking it in turns to arrive for one-hour sessions.
In Germany, the blueprint for a return to action contains the premise of testing twice a week, with team meetings held only for compelling reasons and stars encouraged to shower and change at home. If successful, it’s likely the majority of these rules will be adopted here.
It could make for an extremely lonely existence at the training ground for players, and it could get worse. Bundesliga officials want strict measures put in place regarding contact with families, with players banned from physical contact with their loved ones if they display any symptoms.
One way of minimising this, and an option that has been discussed in regards to the Premier League, is for teams to be put up in hotels for a period of time, away from their families.
If the managers and players can expect a new normal, so too can the fans.
When the league returns it will do so behind closed doors, with no fans permitted inside the ground. Gary Neville, speaking on Sky Sports’ Football Show, warned that this may be the case for up to six months.
Gary Neville has suggested supporters could be shut out of grounds for at least six months
Instead, a group of at least 300 people will be needed to make sure every match goes ahead smoothly. That includes media, ground staff and technicians, security and members of staff from both teams.
While supporters will not be able to watch in person, they may have greater access to action from their armchair than ever before.
UEFA have announced that, due to the unprecedented situation, the 3pm blackout rule – which prevents broadcasters from showing games on Saturday afternoons – has been lifted, paving the way for more matches to be shown on TV.
UEFA have announced a temporary lifting of the Saturday 3pm blackout rule for broadcasters
There is also the prospect that the final matches of the season could be on free-to-air TV
There has even been talk of matches being made available on free-to-air TV, with the secretary for the department of media, culture and sport Oliver Dowden keen stress the importance of the return of the league for the country’s morale. Staggered kick off times would also allow more games to be shown on TV than ever before.
However, any such arrangement will require agreement from both BT Sport and Sky Sports, who are already attempting to stem the flow of losses following a lengthy period without their main commodity – live football.
While fans know where they will be watching from, it is not yet clear at all where the matches themselves will be taking place.
As reported previously by Sportsmail, it seems increasingly likely that neutral hubs will be picked across the country to host games.
These stadiums, selected by geographical location, could even host multiple games in a single day in an attempt to help teams rattle through their remaining fixtures in a bid to have the season complete before August.
Both Wembley and St George’s Park have been offered up as venues to host matches, while Championship and League One grounds could also be earmarked, should the EFL scrap their seasons.
It is increasingly likely that matches will be played at neutral venues such as Wembley Stadium
The Football Association have also offered up St George’s Park to host some matches
On the pitch, rules may be bent to help clubs cope with the hectic schedule at the end of the season. Teams may be allowed up to five substitutions each in a bid to keep squads fresher for a busy run-in, while there is a chance that VAR may be scrapped, too.
Depending on the extent to which the league want to listen to medical advisors, players may have to wear facemasks on their return to the pitch. In Spain, there is even talk of ball being sterilised before every game, and for grappling at corners to be banned entirely.
With even the rules on the pitch up for discussion, football could return a very different sport indeed.
Due to the tight schedule to end the season, clubs may be allowed to use five substitutions