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The way is clear for Premier League’s Project Hope For The Best to begin | Football


Beyond the meetings there are other meetings. And beyond those meetings, well, we might just be getting towards a decisive exit from that place between heaven and hell in which Premier League football has lurked for the past three months.

The successful conclusion of the latest video conference on Thursday morning can be taken as confirmation that all immediate hurdles to the Premier League’s return have been cleared. The interim boardroom wrangle phase has now entered its final act. Although not without a significant degree of narrative tension along the way.

At the end of which Project No Refunds (also known as Project Restart) rolls on to its planned start date on Wednesday next week, with a full resumption due the following weekend.

Project Sabotage, a subplot of these early boardroom episodes, has been decisively headed off.

This is in part thanks to some fine consensus building from Richard Masters. There is a sense too that recent progress owes something to the unflinching stance of the TV broadcasters, whose hard-nosed position on payments due will be vividly familiar to anyone who has ever had their direct debit fail.

At which point the Premier League can enter its next phase, Project Fingers Crossed And Hope For The Best. The final stages in the return to action will be about logistics and finessing the details, not to mention the good health of everyone concerned, in ways that go beyond the rounds of Covid-19 testing carried out so far.

There is now a shared urgency to return, ironing the details as and when they come up along the way. No consensus has been reached yet on a backstop curtailment provision should the season fail again, which no one seems ready to contemplate right now. Neutral venues will remain an option, to be used as and when required.

We can expect fixture lists to be produced in the next day or so, with details on exactly how the broadcasts will be styled also left to emerge as events move along. Most significantly the champions (whoever that may be) will lift the trophy as soon as it is mathematically confirmed, which is entirely sensible.

There are probably three things worth taking from this right now. First, it is correct that the option of neutral venues is still open. There has been a tendency to respond to this angrily, as though people who watch football are being singled out and insulted by the suggestion they might be tempted to gather in groups at home grounds.

This is in itself a failure of logic. The various types of existing lockdown breakers often mentioned in such arguments: the crowds at beaches and public parks. But these are just people in the same way football supporters are people – no doubt often the same people.

The evidence is clear enough on this. Given the right motivation some humans in the UK will gather in groups against government advice. It’s not offensive to a porous and non-exclusive subset of this society to suggest additional large events will make this more likely to happen. It is a shared bad habit that needs to be mitigated where possible.

In any case, what difference does it make? There are no crowds present inside. Home or neutral ground: it is all essentially irrelevant, just as right now grandstanding, tribalism and the reflex taking of sides is not an appropriate response.

The other major issue relates to the main on-field change agreed. For the remainder of the season five substitutes will be allowed, with nine reserve players permitted on the bench.

This makes a lot of sense. The evidence of the Bundesliga suggests confinement has had a debilitating effect, with a significant amount of muscular strain injuries sustained in the early games.

This is hardly surprising. Players are required to possess a rare combination of attributes at the elite level: speed and endurance, but also strength and flexibility, the ability to spring sideways, to leap and land properly, the necessity of contorting tired muscles into positions of unnatural strain. For all the work done in lockdown there is no substitute for doing this for real.

It is a hugely difficult situation for the players, who will be expected to win, instantly, but who must also be allowed to ease back into the reality of full-on match play. There is perhaps even a case for rolling substitutes, or for built-in rest periods, although that would have required a preoccupation with wellbeing that is alien to football’s governance. It is to be hoped no serious, pressure-induced injuries are sustained as a result.

The other side to this is a loss of sharpness in basic technique. This week the French newspaper L’Équipe ran a study on this subject, with input from players across Europe who have noted a loss of basic ball skills during confinement. Marcelo of Real Madrid reported that for the first time during an extended break he felt his ball control suffering. Players reported puzzled laughter at mistakes in training that just wouldn’t normally happen. Patience will be required on all sides. This is all very new.

As the Premier League prepares to enter this final portal – football through the looking glass – it is also worth reflecting again on exactly why this is happening. Professional sport is not an essential service right now. The top divisions are only returning because of their own life-threatening dependence on broadcast revenues.

Another reason is the social elements around football. Perhaps we are now discovering exactly what the government means when it states that the return of football will “raise national morale”. As the nation begins to boil in confinement, gripped with rage, dissent and some painful self-analysis, it is tempting to hear the hooves of the cavalry at the gate.

So this is what happens when you take away the circuses. Or when people don’t have VAR or a confected tribal identity to offer a little soothing release. Just when you needed something to defuse the mood of anger, racist abuse and online tribal rage. Here comes football. Hmm.

It will take patience, and perhaps even a mild suspension of disbelief. But for better or worse, the great national distraction is back.



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