Premier League clubs weigh up neutral-venue plan

The Premier League is considering a plan to stage the remainder of the 2019-20 season at neutral venues, although not all clubs are on board with the proposals.

During a meeting on Friday, clubs discussed steps towards resuming the season when it is safe and appropriate to do so amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While no concrete decision was made during the meeting, numerous reports have emerged over the weekend suggesting that if the league does resume, matches will be held behind closed doors at neutral venues.

Clubs reaffirmed their commitment to finishing the 2019-20 season and welcomed the creation of a government medical working group for a return of elite sport.

The Premier League did not disclose specific details of the meeting but the BBC has reported that clubs were told the only way to resume the season would be under a neutral-venue model. Up to 10 stadia would be used under this plan, which would also require up to 40,000 COVID-19 tests to be carried out for players and staff.

The venues would be chosen based on a rating from the police and the Sports Ground Safety Authority and not all of them would necessarily be Premier League grounds.

Following the reports, Brighton & Hove Albion chief executive and deputy chairman Paul Barber responded to the plans and said the club has not been asked if it would consider offering the Amex Stadium as one of the neutral venues.

Barber added: “Clearly, we must all be prepared to accept some compromises, and we fully appreciate why playing behind closed doors is very likely to be a necessary compromise to play our remaining games while continuing to fully support the government’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus. But at this critical point in the season playing matches in neutral venues has, in our view, potential to have a material effect on the integrity of the competition.

“Five of our nine remaining matches due to be played at the Amex – all five matches are very difficult but four are against some of the biggest clubs in European football. The disadvantages of us not playing the league’s top teams in our home stadium and in familiar surroundings, even with 27,000 Albion fans very unlikely to be present at the Amex, are very obvious.

“Clearly, we must accept there may also be some benefit from playing our remaining four away matches at neutral venues but the fixture list simply isn’t equally balanced at this stage of the season, and we didn’t play our first 29 matches of the season in this way. So, in our opinion one thing doesn’t cancel out the other.”

Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has also been discussing the ‘Project Restart’ plans. In an article for the Sunday Times that was republished on Palace’s official website, Parish discussed the barriers facing clubs.

“We know we cannot have spectators at matches,” he said. “Given we cannot leave our houses at the moment, we know things out of our control must change before the Premier League can consider finishing 2019-20 or starting next season on time.”

Parish added: “Let’s be clear: there are a list of things we cannot and will not do. We cannot occupy any paramedic or ambulance that the NHS needs. We must do our best not to create a public-order issue with supporters attempting to get close to grounds. Perhaps most importantly, we cannot take testing capacity from one person in greater need.

“The issue of player and staff welfare has to be treated with the utmost seriousness. We must bring the players with us, we must listen to them, we must put the health of them and their families front and centre whenever we play again. It should be not just about rendering it safe for them but also making sure they feel safe.

“But I’ve seen all the proposals for training and travel and while there are challenges, those proposals offer a level of protection to players, staff and officials that I believe will render Premier League football one of the safest places in society to co-exist, much safer than a journey to the supermarket at present.”

Elsewhere, Southampton chief executive Martin Semmens feels that the league should not be seeking an immediate return to action, adding that the ultimate decision will be made by the government, as has been the case in France and the Netherlands.

Speaking to BBC Radio Solent, Semmens said: “No-one is talking about playing now, it’s not appropriate now, no-one is suggesting we will play now. But what we must do is plan for how we will bring our business back, otherwise there will be no business and there will be no football club.”

He added: “Everybody wants to know where we are going and when we are going to play, but I think the important thing to stress before we get into the processes is that in reality it is not a decision that Southampton Football Club is making and in a lot of ways not really one that the Premier League make on their own.

“It’s a government decision and that relationship with the government and the important and qualified people there is really what is key.”

The Daily Mirror also reported that West Ham United, Watford, AFC Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich have raised concerns over plans over ‘Project Restart’, which would need backing from 14 of the 20 clubs to be approved.

The Premier League has been suspended since March 13 following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Image: Julian P Guffogg