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Premier League restart: A big week ahead for the future of football, says Sky Sports podcast

In an in-depth podcast, Sky Sports News' Bryan Swanson and Kaveh Solhekol explain what is now required for the Premier League to come back

This is 'a significant week for the future of football in this country', according to Sky Sports' latest podcast.

The next Premier League shareholders' meeting has been pushed back to Monday. The adjustment follows Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to update the nation on Sunday on how the country is tackling the coronavirus pandemic and plans for lockdown moving forward.

Premier League shareholders had planned to meet on Friday after the government update but will now take time to understand the Prime Minister's latest advisory on lockdown and social distancing ahead of their meeting on Monday.

The new date will give the Premier League and its clubs time to consider government plans more fully. Clubs remain hopeful they will be able to begin training in the third week in May, ahead of a return to match action potentially in the middle of June.

In an in-depth preview, Sky Sports News' chief reporter Bryan Swanson and reporter Kaveh Solhekol explain where Project Restart - the plan to resume football in England - is up to, what needs to happen before football can return and the hurdles which must still be overcome.

Read on for an edited version of their explainer or listen to their analysis in full on a special Sky Sports Football podcast below.

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Why is this an important week for Project Restart?

Bryan Swanson: This is a significant week for the future of football in this country. We're going to be learning in detail about how the UK intends to come out of these restrictions, whenever that may be. Boris Johnson has said the government will be publishing a comprehensive plan, with full details expected by Sunday.

According to the medical experts, the pandemic is past its peak in the UK but we know there's going to be no quick way back. The Premier League clubs remain committed to finishing this season. That position hasn't changed since English football was suspended on Friday 13 March. First, the league was suspended until April 4, then April 30, then indefinitely - a sign of just how unpredictable the last seven weeks have been.

The Premier League are going to be guided by what the government say and that should give us the answer of how the game can return.
Bryan Swanson

The problem is football has no control over this situation. Everyone is extremely mindful that this is a desperately sad situation. More than 28,000 people have lost their lives in the UK with coronavirus. Family and friends have lost loved ones and, as much as we all love sport and football, we all know that it doesn't matter compared to public health.

But it is still important to plan for the future and that's where the Premier League, in particular, are going to be guided by what the government say and that should give us the answer of how the game can return. There's going to be a further meeting planned after the government announcement and then clubs are due to meet again on Monday 18 May.

What might a Premier League return look like?

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Sky Sports News’ chief reporter Bryan Swanson and reporter Kaveh Solhekol look ahead to a key week for football as the government announces its latest plans over the coronavirus pandemic

Kaveh Solhekol: Not all the 20 stadiums would be used. They're looking at using between eight and 10 neutral venues. This is quite contentious because some of the clubs, especially the clubs near the bottom of the Premier League, are not in favour of using neutral venues because obviously in those games they would be losing home advantage.

We don't know which grounds would be used but it is safe to assume they would be grounds away from city centres that are not in an area where there's lots of housing. You're talking about grounds such as West Ham, Brighton, Leicester and Manchester United. They also need grounds that are quite modern, so it will be easier to have social distancing between the players and all the other people who will be at those games.

It's quite contentious, this issue of playing at neutral grounds, but it's the only way football can restart because you wouldn't be able to get licenses to play games at all 20 grounds at the moment. It would be much easier for the authorities if games were just played at eight or 10 grounds and much easier to make those grounds safe.

Swanson: One of the key considerations here is the police and I think there is a nervousness that, although supporters will be told not to go anywhere near grounds, some of them will be tempted to do that, particularly as lockdown eases.

I also think Wembley will be under consideration because the FA will also have one eye on hoping to resume their FA Cup ties and if you look at some of those remaining games - potential semi-finals and final - Wembley could be key to that. I do think the police will be extremely aware of the potential for supporters around grounds, like it or not.

Are the clubs in agreement about how the return could work?

Swanson: What is clear is there's a difference of opinion about the best way to return, in particular on the issue of neutral venues. It's an emotive one because it strikes at the very heart of the notion of home and away games. But something has to give, compromises must be made.

This is all about accepting the least worst-case option. There's no perfect solution here and that's something the clubs will be mindful of. It has been telling that after every major meeting, there has been a statement that says the clubs unanimously agree that they want to finish the season. The issue of how is ultimately still up for discussion.

Solhekol: It's emotive, it's controversial but I don't think there's anything wrong with teams at the bottom of the table having concerns about it. Because if you're relegated from the Premier League, it's an incredible financial hit. And being relegated in the current circumstances is unthinkable for these clubs. So they do have to look out for their own interests as well.

Being relegated in the current circumstances is unthinkable for these clubs. So they do have to look out for their own interests as well.
Kaveh Solhekol

If you look at Brighton's fixture list, they have five games to play at home. Four of them are against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. You'd have to say, they'd have a better chance of winning some of those games if they were playing at a full Amex stadium, instead of playing at a neutral venue.

You have to respect why teams like Brighton have doubts about playing games at neutral venues. But then, on the other hand, you have to respect that if this is the only way the season can be completed then it's got to be give and take. And some of those clubs who have concerns have to put them to one side and trust in the Premier League and the advice they're getting from the government and authorities and trust their own players for them to go out on the pitch and represent their clubs and try to get a result.

Could the season still be cancelled, as we've seen in Holland and France?

Solhekol: I think there's a chance the season won't be completed but all 20 clubs absolutely and totally want to finish the season if at all possible.

If you look at the league table, some of the teams towards the bottom, surely they would prefer it if the season was cancelled and there was no relegation and they stayed in the Premier League for another season and they got all the money in the future that that entails. People can assume that. But from all the people that myself and Bryan have been talking to, the information we're getting is that as a whole, the Premier League is totally committed to finishing the season whenever possible, when it's safe to do so.

I don't think the Premier League or the clubs will take the decision to cancel the season. I think if it happens it will be a decision taken by the government - as it was in France, where the Prime Minister announced there would be no sporting events until September. From what we're hearing from the government here, that is not going to happen. They seem to think that it would be good for the Premier League to start again, good for the morale of the nation if football restarted.

It is possible the season could be cancelled but at the moment the clubs want to restart, the Premier League wants to restart and the government wants to restart.

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So what can we expect over the coming days?

Swanson: Football is now being entirely guided by the government. By the end of this week, we will be a little clearer, about how the UK intends to begin to exit this period of lockdown, this period of restrictions. And what they will give is some sort of clarity for football, in particular the Premier League, in particular the EFL, about the next step.

And the next step is allowing players to return in group sessions and allowing contact between players. And that's the thorny issue. They will want some assurance from the medics that that is safe. And only when they're told that is safe training schedules can perhaps resume, the idea being they want there to be a three-week run-up in training before any matches resume.

But this is going to be a phased process. It's a difficult process, it's complicated, it's emotive, but the game is doing it's best to plan, to try to help those clubs have a structure going into the summer.

To listen to Bryan Swanson and Kaveh Solhekol in full on the proposed restart and the dilemmas ahead, download the Sky Sports Football Podcast on: Spotify | Apple | Castbox | Spreaker

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