Football’s Staying Home – The Government’s careless mishandling of Project Restart

During the pandemic, football fans from around the globe have lived a locked-down half-life without the very thing that they live for, and the UK has been no different. In the absence of any sort of leadership or communication from either the government or football authorities, it fell to individual clubs to discuss amongst themselves how to wrap up the season for their own leagues, whilst fans were left to wait in agony to find out what will happen with the remainder of the season.

The Premier League, its managers, and player representatives have met with government officials every week since the Covid-19 pandemic put a pause on the season. The purpose of these talks has been to discuss Project Restart – the official name of the plan that will be used to kick-off the season again. By the end of this week, we hope to have a clearer picture on when football will return in England and how it will look. But a diffusion of responsibility between the government and sporting bodies has left many concerned over how a safe return for football can be achieved.

Last week, fans were given the encouraging news that some Premier League matches will be televised free-to-air after “productive discussions between the government and English football authorities”. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, believes such a deal could be a “win-win situation” for supporters and clubs, with plans to resume England’s top league in Mid-June. Whilst that seems appealing to football fans and attractive to the TV companies, it would be completely dishonest to suggest that everyone is a winner in this situation.

The fact is that, during lockdown, the government have given little clarity on the progress of Project Restart. In the face of more questions than answers, people are asking themselves, has the government thought this through?

For the players
There are numerous hurdles to jump before Premier League teams can even get on to the training ground to do anything approaching normal training, and assuming they do make it back to the hallowed turf, things will only get more complicated. Medics have expressed concerns about the impact Covid-19 could have on the lungs and heart, a risk for professional athletes returning to peak performance. Players are understandably worried about picking up the virus at training and taking it back to their family at home, and are demanding reassurances that they and their families will be safe.

As ever, footballers (including high-profile players Sergio Aguero and Danny Rose) have been open on social media about their thoughts on the potential return, expressing anger at being used as “lab rats” and saying they have will not run the risk of infection. At Brighton and Hove Albion, where three players have tested positive, manager Graham Potter has cautioned a premature return, saying that the situation is “not totally resolved”. Eight players have tested positive for coronavirus so far but, despite paying lip service to “transparency”, the Premier League has declared that “no specific details” about affected clubs will be made public.

According to a survey by the Football Medicine and Performance Association, footballers and medical practitioners have been insufficiently consulted about resumption of play, and had not even received a copy of the Premier League’s medical protocol, which included advice for footballers to turn their face away after a tackle during games. Players have openly expressed concerns that it is almost impossible to play whilst social distancing and fear their safety will be compromised for the sake of entertaining football fans.

For non-premier league teams
Another thing the government have not yet addressed in the encouraging the return of live games is the exclusion of lower league teams from playing their games. With Project Restart focusing solely on the England’s top flight, the Premier League, little consideration has been given to the punishing financial losses of lower league teams. Lower league teams receive little to no money from their games being broadcast live, and have been left to come up with their own solutions on how to proceed. League Two, for example, decided not to play their remaining fixtures but League One remaining undecided and suggesting a mini tournament between the top eight clubs to determine their position.

Lower league clubs will have made huge losses in the absence of any ticket revenue from games, and it is only top flight teams that will be able to slightly concur with the “win-win” notion expressed by the Culture Secretary. Lower league players and club staff can be furloughed like everyone else, but some consideration could have gone to ensuring that lower league teams don’t fall too far behind in an already precariously imbalanced financial system.

The Cultural Renewal Taskforce was set up on 20 May by DCMS to help “get the country’s recreation and leisure sector up and running again”. This includes everything from tourism, culture and heritage, libraries, entertainment and sport. With only one athlete on the taskforce (former England footballer Alex Scott), it’s unlikely that enough consideration was given to ‘Project Restart’ to ensure the safest return for everyone involved in not only football, but all sport.

The government might have seriously misjudged plans to restart the Premier League, with the impact resonating on football as we know it for years to come. As with many other aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic, football’s proposed return has been chaotic, with the more vulnerable clubs forgotten. A full consultation of all parties involved with the return of the game is required, rather than simply reaping the financial rewards of the new TV deal.

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