Image: Wikimedia Commons / Julian P Guffogg / Amex Stadium Pitch panorama / CC BY-SA 2.0
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Julian P Guffogg / Amex Stadium Pitch panorama / CC BY-SA 2.0

Relegation candidates could derail Premier League restart

Speculation regarding the Premier League’s resumption – which has since been widely dubbed ‘Project Restart’ by the relevant stakeholders – has continued to mount, with clubs facing growing pressure to return to the field following the announcement that the Bundesliga will return later this month.

The Premier League’s proposals would see the remainder of the season played out at neutral venues, seeing clubs forfeit home advantage for the foreseeable future. PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor has also suggested that the Premier League could increase the number of substitutions teams are allowed to make per match, or reduce the length of games until the end of the 2019-20 season to prevent injuries often caused as a result of a congested fixture list.

In order for Project Restart to come to fruition, the Premier League requires governmental approval – which could be granted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as early as tomorrow – and a consenting vote from the league’s clubs. In order for the Premier League to amend its rules, it requires a 14-6 majority vote in favour of its proposals.

The Premier League’s proposals therefore hang in the balance

The Premier League’s resumption plans have, however, faced opposition from the league’s bottom six clubs, Brighton, West Ham, Watford, Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich. The Premier League’s proposals therefore hang in the balance: if another club joins the dissenting ranks, the balance would be tipped against a swift resumption, hosted in neutral venues.

A ‘no’ vote would wreak havoc for the Premier League, its broadcast partners, and UEFA – European football’s governing body have repeatedly stated its preference for competitions to be completed before the end of this summer. Project Restart puts moral and medical grievances aside: the Premier League’s return is driven by serious financial pressures, although it remains unclear if the league’s bottom clubs will be convinced to support the proposals.

The proposals are divisive, an issue that has only grown more severe since the league’s bottom-six clubs announced their opposition to the plans. Karen Brady came out early in support of null and voiding the Premier League, a suggestion that stank of blatant self-interest. The mood has since soured, and West Ham are not the only club to have publicly announced their opposition.

A growing clamour has emerged in opposition to the Premier League’s plans

Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow said on Wednesday: “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.”

Whether Purslow’s concerns are legitimate or not, a growing clamour has emerged in opposition to the Premier League’s plans. The charges against Project Restart are simple: playing at neutral venues for the remainder of the season completely undermines the integrity of the competition.

Teams in the embroiled in a fight to remain in the Premier League are unsurprisingly unwilling to yield homefield advantage, a concern less severe for clubs competing a safe distance from the dreaded trapdoor. The bottom-six clubs have reportedly said that they would agree to support the proposals if the Premier League waives the right to relegate teams at the end of the season.

Removing relegation from the equation would be unacceptable

It is one thing to object to playing at neutral venues; it is an entirely different proposition to suggest that the season should be completed without the risk of being relegated. If playing at neutral venues is so damning to the Premier League’s integrity, removing relegation from the equation is testament to setting the rulebook on fire and feeding the leftovers to the wolves – the animal, not the football club.

If the Premier League season is completed without relegation, clubs across the league would effectively already be on the beach. Liverpool have already won the league, Manchester City will finish second, and Leicester have probably done enough to qualify for Europe. Plausibly, that would leave only the teams ranked fourth through eleventh with anything to play for until the end of the campaign. It would be an utter farce.

Clubs are equally incensed that the season has been wiped from history

The strategy from the league’s bottom clubs seems obvious. If the Premier League is unable to return, it will be forced to decide the final standings based on sporting merit – likely points per game, or the season expunged from history. Both outcomes would be a legal minefield. In France, multiple clubs – competing at both ends of Ligue 1 – have announced their intent to launch legal battles against the decision to decide the standings on PPG. In the English lower leagues, clubs are equally incensed that the 2019-20 season has been wiped from history.

If Project Restart is voted down on partisan grounds, it will undermine the integrity of the competition, allegedly the world’s greatest league. It would also be perennial mark against the name’s of the clubs that vote it down for cynical reasons. Likewise, if the Premier League is forced to relegate teams before clubs are able to complete the season, lawsuits will pour down all summer.

Cynically, it seems that clubs are banking on the Premier League seeking to avoid a summer of mass litigation. The Premier League is in quite the pickle. Finish the season without relegation, or relegate clubs despite being unable to finish the season. Both scenarios are farcical, hence the Premier League must pass its restart proposals: its integrity is at stake.

If the Premier League returns, it must only do so if it is safe to do so – that much is obvious. The way towards a resolution to football’s grandest political psychodrama, however, remains anything but clear.

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