Date: 8th May 2020 at 8:09am
Written by:

‘Project Restart’. The very name is typically cringeworthy, but that’s a minor detail. The Premier League are, to use the current vernacular, ‘ramping up’ plans to re-start the season in an attempt to complete the league by the end of July.

All manner of rumours have surfaced in recent days, including playing at neutral venues, abandoning (or not) relegation, allowing five substitutes and my particular favourite, playing halves shorter than 45 minutes amid concerns about players’ safety. None of these measures would help protect the “integrity” of the competition they seem so keen to preserve.

If they are concerned about players’ safety, here’s an idea: don’t restart the season until it is safe to do so. And if that doesn’t fit in, then just abandon the season and plan for a resumption of the league later in the year when more is known about Covid-19, including the likelihood of re-infection to those who have already had the virus, or more importantly, the chances of a second, potentially more devastating wave later in the year.

Dean Smith has said that Villa are keen to resume the campaign. Smith told BBC Radio 5 live:

“I feel when the season eventually begins again it will be a new season for us. I always said our second season would be better and unfortunately a pandemic has hit us.

When we do restart it will be a second season and we will be better for that. The players are certainly ready and know what is expected of them when we are back at the training ground again.”

Admirable optimism from Deano there, but his boss is less enthusiastic. Obviously, relegation would have huge financial implications for the club but Christian Purslow is more concerned about the plans to use neutral venues to conclude the 92 remaining matches.

“We’ve got six home games left to play and I think any Villa fan would agree that giving up that advantage is a massive decision for somebody running Aston Villa and I certainly wouldn’t agree to that unless those circumstances are right.”

Home form has kept Villa in the hunt for safety this season, with five of our seven wins coming at Villa Park. Clearly, to lose that ‘advantage’ would be a significant hindrance to our chances of staying up. I must admit that I’m inclined to agree with Purslow.

There can be little doubt we have under-performed for large parts of the season, and the smart money would probably be on Villa to go down however the season resumed. But it’s impossible to be sure, and to move the goalposts (so to speak) by altering the conditions in which matches are played doesn’t sit right with me.

Of course, home advantage would be severely compromised by playing behind closed doors (which is a given in any event) but I see no reason why, if they insist on restarting, clubs can’t complete their fixtures at the venues originally scheduled.

There are major concerns that fans would ignore the current lockdown and congregate in large numbers outside whatever stadium had a match going on, but surely that’s an inevitable outcome of trying to force a resumption to the league?

The situation should become a little clearer on Sunday evening when the government will update us on possible easing of lockdown measures, but I can’t honestly see how player safety (and indeed the safety of club staff, stewards, security, medical staff and more) can be guaranteed, even if they were tested before and after games.

I totally understand the need to plan for a restart at some stage – like any industry, football cannot be put on hold forever – but the evidence suggests that this is coming far too soon. I don’t buy the idea that a resumption of the league will somehow boost the morale of the country – too many people are still dying on a daily basis, even if the so-called curve has been “flattened” or we are past the peak.

As sportsmen and competitors, I have no doubt that the players are keen to get back to it as soon as they can. But legitimate concerns for safety remain, with Sergio Aguero a high-profile sceptic, fearing that the players’ families are at risk from any premature restart.

It’s not an easy decision, and the wrong one could be catastrophic. I have no issue in resuming professional sport when it is safe to do so, I just can’t help thinking now is not that time.

Project Restart - how do YOU feel?

Yes - let's get this done!

Yes - let's get this done!

Not yet - still not safe

Not yet - still not safe

Cancel the season

Cancel the season

The sensible decision would be to cancel the season and plan for next. I’m not saying that out of some hidden agenda to keep Villa in the Premier League – frankly, we are not good enough on the evidence so far, and I detest the Premier League greed and fixation on the top few clubs – I much preferred the Championship in a purely sporting sense: proper grounds, proper fans, proper competition (although the referees were the worst I have ever seen!).

The rush to resume smacks of financial greed, with the league desperate not to have to reimburse their broadcasting paymasters, and of Sky and BT desperate to start collecting subscription money again, having (in all fairness to them) suspended subs while no football is taking place.

Hopefully (and I am not holding my breath on this), the government will take matters out of the hands of the football authorities and announce a continuation of lockdown and social distancing for the time being.

But, in the immortal words of Doris Day, que sera sera.

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