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What little sympathy there is for Premier League clubs and players will run dry if they dig their heels in



Like all Premier League grounds, Anfield remains closed to football. Last weekend, it had been scheduled to host Liverpool’s final home game of the Premier League season

Like all Premier League grounds, Anfield remains closed to football. Last weekend, it had been scheduled to host Liverpool’s final home game of the Premier League season

Like all Premier League grounds, Anfield remains closed to football. Last weekend, it had been scheduled to host Liverpool’s final home game of the Premier League season

It was only 11 days ago that the Premier League told its 20 clubs that one issue was non-negotiable if the season was to be played out: the remaining 92 games had to take place at neutral venues.

The presentation could not have been clearer as the league outlined "strict conditions" for the return of top-flight football. The first was no fans in the stadium. The second was no matches were to be played at "home stadiums". If neither of those conditions was met, games would not be approved by the UK government, the UK Football Policing Unit and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, as well as "some police forces". The season, therefore, would have to come to an end.

But the Premier League has now faced such strong opposition - with as many as 12 clubs against neutral venues - that it will have to hold talks with the police and the government to try to overturn what was apparently a non-negotiable demand.

Although it is not a given that the authorities will relent, it has become clear that unless the Premier League puts forward the case for the dissenting clubs, there is a real danger the issue will be rejected if put to a vote next Monday. And where would that leave the Premier League? Where would that leave English football? How would that civil war look?

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It may be that the UK government stands its ground, although the noises are that it is more sympathetic to the Premier League's plight and especially after the Prime Minister's 50-page "road map" document for exiting the coronavirus lockdown gave professional sport the go-ahead to return next month.

The fact is that everyone involved now has to try to make this work. If games are not played at neutral venues after all then the clubs - those at the bottom feeling disadvantaged by not being at "home" even if it is behind closed doors, and those further up the table trying to protect lucrative sponsorship deals - have been listened to.

Their arguments have been advanced as to whether "sporting integrity" was being compromised; whether the Premier League was now a different competition and whether they were potentially the fall guys, left to pick up the pieces with a £200 million (€230m) black hole in finances, as Christian Purslow, the Aston Villa chief executive, put it. If games are allowed home and away then it all comes down to one thing: safety. And this is where football really has to pull together - has it done up until now? - because the well of sympathy that has existed will quickly run dry. Vested interest has become a buzz phrase around the Premier League, and unashamedly so, but there will be a point soon when it will become an irritant.

Talk of players being "guinea pigs" amid the devastating effects of coronavirus is misplaced and overwrought. If the right health, hygiene and social-distancing protocols are put in place there is a compelling case to be made that they will be working under some of the safest conditions possible; far safer than for millions of other stressed workers.

They are being tested twice a week; they are being closely monitored; they are being given far more support and help than those left bewildered and frightened by the government's mixed messages - wondering whether they can take the Tube or bus and how their children are to be cared for.

The Premier League is not due to return until June 12. Think how different the world is now than it was a month ago. Imagine how it will be when most people have returned to work?

It is tough for many industries across society and, right now, it is far tougher for footballers in Leagues One and Two, whose season might be abandoned on Thursday with many clubs appearing set to decide that it is not worth taking them off furlough and whose futures are up in the air.

The question will soon arise as to what the Premier League clubs - and players - really want. We need to cut to the chase. There have been a lot of meetings and talk, but not a lot of resolution, with the beleaguered organisation itself rightly standing accused of having failed to get its messages across. Indeed, much of the irritation at yesterday's meeting was directed at the league itself rather than the disputing clubs.

But maybe the right thing to do is stop now. Curtail the season. End it and accept we have to move towards making 2020-'21 work. If that is to be the case, then so be it. Maybe the broadcasters will demand their money back - all £762 million of it - and the players will be asked to take huge pay cuts because, well, they are not playing football. So, they will surely agree, won't they, especially if it protects the jobs of other people at their clubs?

Something has to give. It is clear what that something is. There needs to be a spirit of co-operation and an acceptance that a decision has to be made whether the games are at neutral venues or not. The Premier League should be played out and now is the time for the clubs to pull together for the common good. (© Daily Telegraph, London)