Premier League restart: Government says neutral venues back on table if fans congregate

Nigel Huddleston MP: "We still have COVID-19, this is not life as normal. I know the vast majority of football supporters will behave... everybody knows they have a responsibility here"

The Government and the Premier League have urged supporters not to congregate outside stadiums which are hosting behind-closed-doors matches
Image: The Government and the Premier League have urged supporters not to congregate outside stadiums which are hosting behind-closed-doors matches

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston has told Sky Sports News that should football fans congregate outside home stadiums when the Premier League returns, the Government would bring back the option of using neutral venues to complete some 2019/20 season fixtures.

The Premier League is returning this Wednesday after a three-month hiatus, enforced by the coronavirus pandemic, with Aston Villa vs Sheffield United, and Manchester City vs Arsenal being shown live on Sky Sports.

The possibility of using neutral grounds to complete a handful of fixtures remaining in the Premier League campaign was discussed at length, amid public health risks due to COVID-19, in the build-up to the resumption of top-flight action, but clubs opposed the proposal.

In May, Police set out the matches which they wanted to be played at neutral venues, which included games where Liverpool could seal the title.

Nigel Huddleston
Image: Nigel Huddleston is the UK Government's Sports Minister

The fixtures under discussion were: Everton vs Liverpool (June 21), Manchester City vs Liverpool (July 2), Manchester City vs Newcastle (July 8), Manchester United vs Sheffield United (June 24) and Newcastle vs Liverpool (TBC).

In the list of Premier League fixtures published on June 5, the venue for Everton vs Liverpool was marked as 'TBC', but that game will now take place at Goodison Park, and all matches in the top flight's restart confirmed so far have been given the all-clear to be played at usual home venues.

With matches to be played behind-closed-doors due to public health concerns enforced by coronavirus, the sports minister has warned fans to heed the advice and stay away from stadiums and support their teams from home, or the prospect of using neutral venues for remaining matches will be reconsidered.

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Huddleston told Sky Sports News: "The fans, we need them to follow passionately and follow from your home. Please do so responsibly."

Everton and Liverpool will meet at Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby
Image: Everton and Liverpool will meet at Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby on June 21

On the possibility of fans ignoring government, police and club advice and congregating outside stadia, Huddlestone said: "It's irresponsible, I can't be clearer. It's an irresponsible action.

"The police have the powers to clear crowds and fine them, but those actions may mean we have to take a look at neutral venues or even other options.

"We still have COVID-19, this is not life as normal. I know the vast majority of football supporters will behave.

"We absolutely want to make sure that [fans turning up at stadia] is avoided, and individual fans and clubs and everybody knows they have a responsibility here.

"Those kinds of gatherings are not allowed and the police can intervene."

Masters: Neutral venues contingency plans in place

Ahead of the top flight's restart, in an interview with Sky Sports News, Richard Masters, the Premier League's CEO, has implored fans to "stick by the rules" and not form large groups at stadiums "even in moments of high celebration."

In a media briefing on Tuesday, Masters also reiterated his calls for supporters to remain at home to watch games on television, and indicated that there are provisions in place to move some fixtures to neutral venues, if required.

"Fans are going to get some very clear messages from their clubs, from the managers and club captains, about staying away, about watching at home," he said.

Richard Masters 1:04
The Premier League's chief executive Richard Masters has urged supporters to stay away from stadiums, even in times of great celebration such as winning the title or surviving relegation

"That's why all of the matches are on TV, and many of them on a wider distribution, free-to-air, basis.

"There's an opportunity for everyone to do [watch] it. We think the messaging is going to be clear. We're very hopeful there won't be any instances of gatherings outside of football matches.

"So hopefully it won't occur. Obviously, should it occur, it might create a situation where the progress we've made on neutral venues could be at risk. We're hopeful that won't occur."

"We have contingency plans in place, in relation to neutral venues. We've been in discussions with a number of different clubs, we haven't revealed who they are.

"You're looking at the small number of fixtures that still remain a risk, I think that's the best way of putting it, and also what would happen if things change and we have contingency plans for both."

'Sports shouldn't wait for Government to start being more inclusive'

Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, Huddleston has urged all UK sports not to wait for the Government to force them into ensuring they endeavour to increase BAME representation in all high-ranking roles in management of teams, and within sporting governing bodies.

Ahead of the Premier League's return on June 17, Huddleston insists all sports must make changes and become more inclusive when it comes to appointing boardroom and coaching staff.

Board members from a multi-cultural background currently account for 5.2 per cent of members across sports bodies funded by Sport England and UK Sport, and the sports minister has already stated that the Sports Governance Code will be reviewed, in order to address the lack of diversity.

Raheem Sterling of Manchester City looks on during the Carabao Cup Final between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium on March 1, 2020 in London, England. 1:14
Raheem Sterling has released a video with other high-profile footballers calling for an end to racism and inequality in society

The MP told Sky Sports News: "With the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, I would love sport to move in the right direction rather than be told to do so.

"Don't wait for Government to revise the [Sports Governance Code], what I want is questions to be asked like 'are you really trawling the talent pool?' It's not just within BAME communities, but sport is still under-represented by women."

The minister praised the recent comments by Raheem Sterling around a lack of diversity in football management and within governing bodies, and also the powerful contribution Marcus Rashford made to the debate on school meal vouchers, which brought about a Government U-turn on the matter.

Huddleston described the Manchester United forward as "incredibly articulate", and gave him credit for "raising his profile beyond football."

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