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'It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t finish the season now' - Chris Hughton's note of caution on Project Restart

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Chris Hughton. (Mark Kerton/PA)

Chris Hughton. (Mark Kerton/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

Chris Hughton. (Mark Kerton/PA)

Chris Hughton fears a split among Premier League clubs will end the current season without another ball being kicked, as he backed Liverpool’s claims to be crowned as champions.

Hughton’s former club Brighton are among those leading the opposition to Premier League plans to resume matches behind closed doors and at neutral venues next month, with the latest video conference call between decision-makers at the 20 clubs due to take place on Monday.

Even though the Premier League has been given backing from the UK government to formalise a plan that could see matches get under way again, splits have emerged between its members.

Now former Republic of Ireland defender Hughton has given his verdict on the stance of Brighton and their relegation rivals, as he suspects the self-interest of clubs fearing for their Premier League futures could end hopes of a swift return to action.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we don’t finish the season now, because it looks like we are heading towards a scenario where the clubs don’t find agreement on the plan to start again," begins Hughton.

"The first point has to be that everyone wants to see football back as quickly as possible. It is a massive part of so many lives and in these surreal times we are all living through, having matches on our TV would be welcome.

"It would lift our spirits and give us a sense of normality, with the finances at stake here also an issue for all clubs and they need games being played to ensure the television revenue that is so important to clubs right now is secure.

"Yet I look at it from the perspective of Brighton and the clubs at the bottom end of the table and can see why they would have objections to the neutral ground proposal that seems to be central to this plan to get matches back on.

"If I was the Brighton manager now and had to vote on whether I wanted to play my remaining home matches at neutral venues in front of no fans, I would not be happy with that.

"The fixtures Brighton have left, especially at home, are against some of the teams at the top of the table and they will be crucial to their hopes of staying in the league.

"The trouble is, unless we find a solution to this neutral-ground issue, I can see a scenario where the clubs in the bottom half of the table vote against a resumption and this season is cancelled.

"That would mean no promotion, no relegation and probably a vote to declare Liverpool as champions. They are so far ahead at the top of the table and I’m sure no one would object to giving Liverpool the title."

The first anniversary of Hughton’s sacking as Brighton boss will be marked this Wednesday, with the game he looks in on as an outsider now gripped by a crisis that has the potential to tear it apart for years to come.

Whatever the long-term future may hold, Hughton believes club owners will protect their own interests, rather than embrace the collective eagerness to get the Premier League restarted next month.

"Even though we are caught up in the biggest crisis to hit us in memory," he continues.

"Every club has to look after itself and that will always be the case with so much money at stake for staying in the Premier League.

"I still believe there could be a way to get this resolved and finish the season – and if it means Liverpool playing some extra matches away from home, to avoid the issue of fans gathering at Anfield, maybe that could be looked at.

"This neutral-ground issue appears to have been raised because the police are concerned that thousands of Liverpool fans will gather outside Anfield when they win the title, but there has to be a way around this.

"If police don’t think they can trust Liverpool fans to observe the rules we are all following at the moment, maybe they could play away matches for the rest of this season as they are so far clear at the top that they will win the league wherever they play.

"The alternative is ending the season now and declaring we have no promotion and relegation for this season. Norwich and Aston Villa may be among those getting out of jail, but they would have to vote for that option if it is available to them."

Even if the Premier League finds a solution to allow a return to group training next week, Hughton suspects managers will have challenges getting full-strength teams on the pitch, with Man City striker Sergio Aguero among those unsure whether he wants to return to action.

"We have seen Aguero expressing his concerns about playing and Dean Smith at Aston Villa has said some of his players may not be willing to return with the virus still at the levels it is at in England, due to health issues like asthma.

"We can all understand those concerns and it may be that clubs would have to give players the option not to play if they have reservations about themselves or possibly giving the virus to a family member.

"We are living in surreal times and I feel guilty to be sitting here talking about football issues when so many people are dying in the UK every day, but this is the sport we all love and we have to find a way to get it back, in whatever form is safe for the foreseeable future.

"I feel guilty, too, for talking about what this all means for football because clearly they are far more important issues at stake here and hundreds of people are still dying every day from this virus in the UK.

"Yet football has a big role to play in our society. We are talking about tens of thousands of jobs that could be at stake here, so we need to find solutions to the challenges football now faces.

"The bigger issue coming out of this has to be for football as a whole, because I don’t see fans returning to matches for the next year and possibly until an effective vaccine is produced."

Now the restart of Germany's Bundesliga next weekend is being viewed as a test case as Spain and Italy join the Premier League in trying to plot a path to get their competition going again.

Online Editors