Carry on planning for football’s return, says Uefa expert

Norwich City fans at Sheffield United in the last game before the coronavirus shutdown for both club

Norwich City fans at Sheffield United in the last game before the coronavirus shutdown for both clubs Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The medical chief of European football’s governing body (UEFA) professor Tim Meyer has said it is ‘definitely possible’ to plan for the suspended 2019/20 season to restart, just a day after his FIFA counterpart warned against resuming play before September.

Speaking before France’s Ligue 1 became the second major European league to be cancelled after the Dutch Eredivisie, FIFA’s Michel D’Hooghe claimed it was not possible to play football before social contact was permitted and that he felt September was a realistic target.

But Meyer, chairman of UEFA’s medical committee as well as the newly-formed UEFA medical sub group examining issues around a return to play, takes a different view.

“In discussing any return to playing competitive, elite level football, the health of the players, all those involved in potential games and the public at large is of paramount importance,” he said in a statement, carried on PA.

“All football organisations which are planning the restart of their competitions will produce comprehensive protocols dictating sanitary and operational conditions ensuring that the health of those involved in the games is protected and the integrity of public policy is preserved.

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“Under these conditions and in full respect of local legislation, it is definitely possible to plan the restart of competitions suspended during the 2019-20 season.”

The Premier League continues to work towards a possible return in early June, and has advised clubs to recall players and staff who may have travelled abroad with a view to training beginning in May.

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The league was clear, however, that any return to training next month is subject to the easing of lockdown measures and will be as a result of government advice.

Norwich City and the rest of the Premier League clubs are due to be briefed on various aspects of its ‘Project Restart’ at the next shareholders’ meeting on Friday, including plans for testing and the possibility of games being played on neutral territory.

The Premier League’s medical adviser Mark Gillett, along with the Football Association’s head of medicine Charlotte Cowie, is understood to be part of a group of medical officials from sports governing bodies who will meet on a weekly basis with representatives from Public Health England, in talks led by the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) Mark Roberts, head of the UK Football Policing Unit, believes any proposal to play all Premier League and EFL matches at their original venues would ‘present challenges’ to the emergency services.

Football’s governing bodies are holding talks on how the professional game can safely restart behind closed doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Concerns have been raised about the impact on the police and ambulance services should supporters gather outside stadiums, particularly at matches where a title or promotion might be on the line.

Roberts says consideration should be given to moving decisive games to neutral locations to minimise the health and security risks of mass gatherings.

He also warned that games may not be able to go ahead if crowds gather and do not disperse.

He told the PA news agency: “We’ve done the work assessing the remaining fixtures - I think it’s 92 to finish the Premier League season and 341 in the Football League, seven to complete the FA Cup.

“Playing all those fixtures (in the original venues) would present challenges, that’s an awful lot of people moving around the country, and certainly if they were all played at the originally planned stadiums then I think that does present some challenges.

“I think we all need to look at options about what games absolutely need to be played.

“Let’s look at how they can be managed, potentially at their own stadiums but equally if we can see benefits of playing at a neutral, controlled venue, both from the health aspects of it but also minimising any disruption to the police, the ambulance service and all those other functions that are going to be stretched as we go back to normality and people start going about their normal business again.

“There’s common sense and I think any group of football fans can probably highlight now the fixtures that are probably likely to generate attention.

“One of the things that the Premier League and the Football League are acutely aware of is that clubs would have to get the message out that if matches are taking place they need the continued buy-in of supporters and the public.

“There might be a fair deal that if people start gathering and causing public health or public order issues then that might mean that games can’t actually go on.

“It’s not a case of us imposing anything on (the football authorities) or telling them (what to do).

“I think it’s a case of, in the first instance, football satisfying the government that they can hold the matches and that it’s safe for everyone to do it in terms of players, officials, coaching staff, broadcasters.

“So you get that first stage of ‘how do you make it safe to play football at the location?’ and it may be that actually that mandates them being played at specific neutral venues where it can be controlled. So I think the health aspect of it might dictate the security aspect of it.”

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