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4th May 2020

Science Premier League season: What should happen next? BBC pundits have their say

Science Premier League season: What should happen next? BBC pundits have their say

Science

science Sign displaying news of matches being postponed

The Premier League has been postponed until at least 30 April and the Football Association says the season can be “extended indefinitely”

There are 92 games of the 2019-20 Premier League season remaining but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means no-one knows if, or when, they will be played.

The campaign has been paused indefinitely until football is “safe and appropriate to resume”, but what should happen when it is?

Premier League clubs will meet again on Friday, but before then BBC Sport pundits explore the issues, options and implications of all the choices that elite club football is facing in England.

You can vote for your preferred option lower down on this page.

Should the Premier League season restart?

Danny Murphy: Protecting people’s health is more important than anything in this world right now, but there will come a time when football starts again.

If there is a safe way of doing it, and it is behind closed doors and it can be broadcast, then I don’t think everyone has realised how big an impact, and how much of a feel-good factor that can bring to people around the country – to give them something to watch, to follow, and enjoy.

If nearly 5m people watched the Virtual Grand National, then how many are you going to get watching Premier League football? It would be massive.

Potters Corner won the Virtual Grand National on 4 April in front of a peak audience of 4.8m. Bookmakers took bets on the race and profits went to NHS Charities Together.

Chris Sutton: We are speculating at the moment, because no-one knows how long this lockdown is going to last.

Richard Bevan [chief executive of the League Managers’ Association] says that for games to go ahead, players would have to be tested for coronavirus first. But as Bevan rightly pointed out, the priority for testing has to go to NHS workers and patients first.

Also, if Premier League games do go ahead without fans, which seems to be an idea that has snowballed and is going to happen, then there will still have to be doctors at games, and ambulances.

In two months’ time, the deaths from coronavirus are not going to have stopped. They might have reduced, but how can the Premier League justify coming back and using health workers who are would otherwise be on the beat?

Even if the situation does settle down by then, those workers will still need a break if that is at all possible, mentally and physically. Yet because of the money in football, there is a clamour for it to return.

I think the right thing is to wait and see. With all industries and businesses, the urge is to get the economy back on track and going again, and of course I understand why it is the same with the Premier League – but you cannot put that ahead of people’s lives, and you cannot give football special treatment either.

Ruud Gullit: Football is not as important as the well-being of people in general, and it is not more important than people who have other kind of businesses and are in huge kind of trouble. We have to try to save them all too.

But if things continue like this, then all football clubs are going to have the same sort of problems.

I know people are sick of how money is everything in the Premier League but you don’t want to lose any of the clubs who play in it, which is why they are trying to find a solution so they can all survive.

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‘We’ve got to finish season’ – Deeney

Pat Nevin: Everyone wants answers right now, but you cannot give answers if you don’t have all the information. What is a bad idea is making decisions now that may feel wrong three or four weeks down the line depending on where the pandemic goes from here.

If we are fortunate, then in the next three or four weeks, the health service will be in a much better position and we will have more information about the situation, having worked through it.

There are a variety of possibilities about what happens to the Premier League season but they are all completely and utterly dependent on timescale – if and when restrictions are lifted, and to what level.

Will they be lifted in time so you can play these games in front of fans? That seems unlikely to me.

Karen Carney: Health and safety is the priority. They have got to try to finish it if they can, but only when it is safe to do so.

People have talked about giving the title to Liverpool too because they were going to win it but they have the right to win it properly. If they were just to be given it, you know full well people would say they were the team who ‘did not really win it’.

How can it be done? A ‘mega event’ or ‘festival of football’

Michael Brown: Finishing the season is the correct thing to do – it is the fairest way of deciding what happens.

But the issue here is not ‘who wins what?’. It is about more than the title, or even the top-four and relegation.

Liverpool are 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League but they require two more wins to secure their first league title since 1990

There are financial implications for every club, because of the amount of TV money every Premier League club will lose unless the games are played. This is not about them making money, it is to protect them.

How do we get it done? There are lots of ideas regarding having one base, where everyone will be tested and everyone plays and you get the games done.

But there are also lots of questions about the logistics around it. Where do teams stay and how do you feed them and look after them? There would be a massive knock-on effect.

You can quarantine players and limit the number of people who have access to the stadiums, training grounds and hotels but it will be impossible to keep everyone in a totally secure and sterile bubble.

Mark Lawrenson: It is not fool-proof because there will be contact with people from ‘outside’ but it would cut down that risk of infection as much as possible, which would make a difference.

Danny Murphy: A mega event, with teams staying in isolation camps is all out-of-the-box thinking but it has to be. We have never faced anything like this before.

There is always going to be an argument against whatever solution you come up with because it is not going to suit everyone. But any form of football where you have your destiny in your own hands is better than it being decided by a null-and-void season or saying where teams are now is where they will finish.

If that is condensed into a small timeframe or played in front of no crowds, then it still gives players and coaches alike the opportunity to at least have a say in what happens.

You could argue against that, of course, with lots of things – Liverpool might not get to win the title in front of their own fans. Aston Villa or Bournemouth might not get the home advantage they had banked on in some of their key fixtures, or Spurs might now have some of their injured players back.

But we have to be adaptable here, and open minded.

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A look inside St George’s Park

Karen Carney: There has been talk about holding a mini tournament at St George’s Park where you could facilitate large groups of people and play games quickly. I think you could do similar to the Women’s Super League with the Spring Series format we used a few years ago. We had to get the games played quickly and fast.

There are issues with that, though, because if someone got injured, where would they go? Do you need to test everybody? That would only work if the coronavirus has lifted and people are able to be a little freer.

Pat Nevin: I heard about the festival of football idea, and I think you have to do something like that – get everyone in one place, where they can all easily get to a group of pitches. That could be somewhere in the midlands, or even the north-west.

The idea of everyone flying up or down the country in coaches or planes doesn’t work.

It would just add to the confusion and the tiredness of the players. If the games were all central and the players are based nearby, then they have not got travel problems within this as well.

Is behind closed doors ‘better than nothing’?

England’s game against Croatia in October 2018 – their 988th senior international – was their first to be played behind closed doors. No Premier League games have yet been played without fans

Mark Lawrenson: There are going to have to be compromises made – of course there are. The man in the street has been compromised by this, everyone is – we have got a completely different set of rules to live our lives by – so why should football be any different?

Finishing the season is the most uncomplicated way of settling everything. And, if it takes place behind closed doors so fans are not put at risk, then is that the worst thing in the world?

Of course it will be different, but I think people realise now things have to be different. The whole world has changed, so playing some games of football without supporters there is not really that big an issue.

Premier League clubs are not being greedy with this, they are just trying to stay alive.

Ruud Gullit: The people need it. People would rather see it on TV without any crowds than see nothing at all. And looking at the bigger picture, you don’t want to see a Premier League downsized by clubs that have gone bust – because it will be a long time before there are any crowds.

Karen Carney: If there are games played behind closed doors, I think anyone who has got a season ticket should have access to live streams or have a discount on certain games next season.

There will be ways around it for sure but if games are played behind closed doors, I’d like to have access to the game on TV if I were a season-ticket holder because I want to be a fan and be a part of it.

Too many games, too little time?

Pat Nevin: If you played a game every two or three days then you could get the Premier League tied up in three or four weeks. It is complicated by the FA Cup and Champions League but people will have to accept that.

Mark Lawrenson: If it is a case of teams playing three games a week to get this done, then do it.

I don’t get the argument that it is too many games in a short space of time, because it is the same for everyone, and they will have just had an extended break too. They won’t be tired, will they?

It could be done in 30 days. There are nine games left so you play every three days. What is the issue?

While managers will have to juggle their squads if the season is condensed into a few weeks, some teams will be boosted by the return of players who would have missed a large part of the season if it had been played out normally

Karen Carney: As long as there’s a date on when the games would start and end you can prepare yourself for it. If I knew that in three weeks’ time I was going to go into a big period of games, I could probably adjust my training to build up to it. I would get stronger and add in certain elements of fitness compartments to get ready for it. Ultimately, it is your job. It is all relevant because every player is against the same issues so their fitness might be level.

You have to do what you have to do. You can’t say you don’t fancy kicking a ball around today. It is the best job in the world and there has to be compromises. Not everybody will be happy and with that comes a risk.

It is challenging but if that is what is needed to be done to complete the season then you have to do it.

Danny Murphy: Again, it is about making a choice. What is the lesser of two evils – a few more injuries to deal with because of the schedule, or not finishing the season? Managers will just have to be cute and clever to deal with it.

Clubs spend millions of pounds on sports science and we have got 25-man squads that could be increased to 35 for this. You could even argue for an extra two substitutes per game. These are all better options than saying ‘no, we have not got time’.

We have got time, if they are back in training by the end of May or early June, the games start late June. You could get it done by the end of July have a couple of weeks off and then start agin.

Is money the only reason to complete the season?

Ruud Gullit: In Holland, most of the money from the TV rights has already been paid and the figures are nowhere near as big as they are in the Premier League anyway. So the clubs will not get in as much trouble without it.

But, because they don’t have the income from games – the revenue from fans who are buying beer and all these kind of things – that is something they are going to miss.

So here, some clubs are saying ‘yeah just cancel the whole thing’ whereas in England you have a much more difficult situation because you earn so much more from TV and also your clubs are spending much, much more.

So, for that reason, they have different interests – and the interests for a lot of the clubs is just about the money.

Chris Sutton: One of the things I have learned is that it does not have to be one rule across the board – It is why different leagues have got different decisions to make.

If you strip everything back, there is only one reason for the Premier season to carry on – money. It is all down to that.

There is a clamour and desperation to keep things going as long as possible because the clubs want the TV money and they have realised the implications if they don’t get it.

It has been suggested that Sky won’t ask for their share back, but a large proportion of the money is from the overseas rights.

So, it looks like it will get finished with games being played behind closed doors in a short period, but I don’t see how you can make plans for that at present and we still might reach a point where the league needs to be called off, before it impinges on next season.

The longer it goes on the harder it gets

The only thing that has definitely been decided in the Premier League so far is that Liverpool have definitely qualified for next season’s Champions League – they became mathematically sure of a top-four finish on 17 February

Michael Brown: I am all for finishing this season, whenever that is. Even if it is not until Christmas, it should happen whenever it needs to, because doing that gives so much clarity for what happens next season – nothing has been decided yet.

But it gets more and more complicated the longer you leave it because what happens to players’ contracts, especially with leagues in different countries finishing at different times and any cross-border movement in the transfer market.

Liverpool have qualified for the European Cup or Champions League on 24 occasions

Pat Nevin: I definitely don’t like the thought of leagues not being finished, unless of course this goes on for six months. And then you are in a different reality altogether, and you may have to consider that it cannot be finished.

As time goes by, it gets more complicated because players’ contracts will have run out. In September or October you might have different players at different clubs. It becomes horribly messy.

Mark Lawrenson: If you get into September to get this done then your problems are going to be multiplied because how do you get next season done?

I’ve heard it suggested that you could reduce the cup competitions next season but the FA Cup is the bread-and-butter for so many clubs down the pyramid and the Football Association are quite rightly going to say ‘hold on a minute’ before that is called off.

It is the same with the Carabao Cup guys. You cannot just say ‘sorry, your competition is not happening next year’ and expect them to just go ‘oh, ok then’.

But I don’t see a problem with players’ contracts. Instead of finishing on 30 June, why not just have a blanket rule where they finish on 31 July, or whenever the season is finished.

Chris Sutton: What about the players who are out of contract this summer and already know they are not getting new deals? They might think ‘well, you didn’t want me anyway – why should I put my body on the line for you?’

I know what they might say, and I am not saying this is right – they might say ‘you are going to have to give us more money’.

Danny Murphy: I heave heard people say how it should not impact on two seasons, but I don’t agree with that.

You have to prioritise what is most important and, here, it is our professional leagues. Let’s look after league football first. If we have to lose the cup competitions or European football next season, then so be it.

But let’s face it – if we are talking about September or later for when football comes back, then that would mean we have got horrendous issues in our country. If things are the same then as they are now, with the number of people who are dying, then we are not going to be talking about football.

As of now, I am giving my opinion based on the situation at the moment and, right now, we still have time and the desire of the majority of football people to get things done. As things change, you reassess.

What happens if we cannot finish it?

As things stand, Villa would climb out of the relegation zone if they win their game in hand

Michael Brown: A lot has been said about Liverpool and the title, but really that would be the easiest one of the lot to sort out. They are so far ahead, no-one can argue about it.

For everything else, there will be a formula but it won’t reflect what happens in football.

At the back-end of the season when you are down there and the pressure is on, then we have seen it happen time and time again where teams somehow win their final three games to stay up and you are left thinking ‘how have they done that?’.

There will be a calculation made from remaining fixtures but someone will find an alternative model that gives a different outcome.

Mark Lawrenson: If there is no chance of playing football and they write the season off, then average points per game is the fairest way to sort it out the points and positions.

So, divide the number of points you have got now by the games you have played, then multiply that by the number of games you have got left. Add that on to your existing points for your final total.

But depending on where that leaves them, that is going to be harder for the teams at the bottom to accept than those at the top.

Teams who are relegated that way could say ‘well our last few games were against people around us’ and if you go down now then that is a serious loss of revenue at at time where every penny is going to count.

Using average points per game, the current bottom three would still go down even though Villa have a game in hand and Bournemouth have the same projected points total as Watford and West Ham

Karen Carney: It would have to be void. I don’t think having an average score would be fair or right. That’s my worst case scenario. That would be the only way. If you look at Aston Villa last year in the Championship – they would probably not have been promoted if it went on average points at this stage, because they got momentum and won a lot of games at the end of the season.

A relegation-threatened team could have the chance to get out of it now but an average points system doesn’t give them that opportunity. I like the idea of being given the chance to get yourself into the best position possible – that’s why we love football. If that doesn’t happen then calling the league off is best.

As Michael Brown says, using a different model gives you a different outcome. If you split average points for home and away games, then recalculate the projected total based on the number of home and away games each team has left, Bournemouth climb out of the bottom three, and West Ham would be relegated

Chris Sutton: I want the season to be finished – everyone does – but the whole point is that we are in these uncertain times and people’s lives are far more important than crowning Liverpool champions now, or whenever.

Football could be on the back-burner for a long, long time. The clearest way to do everything, to make sure next season is not affected and to avoid all the other complications, is to stop the season now, and award the title to Liverpool and the teams in the bottom three now go down.

I am not saying it is fair, but there is no fair way. At least by having a clean break, you would know when the next season is going to start.

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