Premier League chairmen are now optimistic top-flight clubs will finish the season – but there is still no Plan B that will decide final placings if matches are curtailed, as teams embrace tough new protocols to keep Covid variant at bay
- All 20 Premier League clubs met on Wednesday and endorsed coronavirus rules
- The Covid protocols were rushed through ahead of the meeting amid fears that football could be shutdown because of high profile rule breaches
- Sportsmail understands better behaviour and few new cases in the top-tier bubble is building confidence and clubs now believe they will finish the season
- But if they don’t, there’s no plan B, since clubs can’t agree how it would work
Top-flight club chairmen and chief executives have rallied around new, tough Covid protocols and committed their teams to follow the rules to keep football going, despite initial concerns from managers.
The 20 Premier League clubs met on Wednesday and were fully behind the regulations, which were rushed out over a week ago amid speculation that Covid-rule breaches might force football to be suspended.
The clubs believe they are making progress in the battle against coronavirus with players working hard to follow the new rules, which include a ban on hugging, and infection rates falling within the game and the community at large.
Leicester’s James Maddison has led the way with socially distanced goal celebrations
Only last week it appeared elite football may be stumbling towards a crisis with government ministers infuriated by images of footballers breaking social distancing guideliens by hugging after goals and celebrating in the dressing room after FA Cup wins.
But it now seems the Premier League is more confident it can avert the threat to the national game and see the season through – provided everyone follows the rules.
Club chairmen and executives feel the players have responded well to the new hugging and close contact rules on the pitch, and the vast majority were already compliant behind the scenes.
‘There’s a general feeling that the players responded well to what they were asked to do,’ said one executive.
‘I have been very proud of our players. They have listened and we could not have asked for any more. It’s progress but we have to keep it up.
Harry Kane kept it distant when he celebrated his goal against Fulham in the Premier League
‘The mood has improved in the last week. People are more optimistic about finishing the season. But no one left the meeting feeling complacent. We are not out of the woods yet.’
There was a strong feeling among clubs that they have to show government they are listening to its concerns, and there was also deep concern about the wider impact of Covid, which claimed another 1,820 lives in Britain yesterday.
The club executives were due to discuss the terms on which the Premier League season could be curtailed if all the matches cannot be completed. Aston Villa are already four matches behind some clubs.
In the end, there was ‘no progress’ on the thorny issue, which revolves around how many games must be completed before final positions can be settled on a points per game basis. So, there is still no Plan B.
Some Premier League teams like West Bromwich Albion had spontaneous celebrations
The conversation began prior to the season starting, but has never been concluded, and it is even harder to do so now as clubs feel the fear of relegation or sense the chance of a European spot or better. The Premier League will be hoping the discussion is increasingly academic as its new Covid protocols take effect.
The protocols cover everything from the training ground, to travel and matchday activities, including handshakes and hugging on and off the pitch.
They were introduced under extreme pressure from government.
West Ham’s Michail Antonio also unveiled an interesting back-stroke routine after scoring
In a vigorous – and effective – rearguard action, the Premier League issued the new protocols and then followed up with briefings for executives, managers and captains.
‘We are fortunate to be able to continue to play and bring our competition to fans at home and around the world,’ Premier League chief executive Richard Masters reminded clubs in a letter last week, after politicians and health experts had questioned the behaviour of top-flight footballers.
Hugging has become a touchstone issue since it is the most high-profile of the Covid protocols and while there were still some cuddles and huddles during the weekend’s fixtures, progress has been made.
In the previous round of Premier League games, all but one goal was followed by a celebratory scrum.
Now, some players, including James Maddison at Leicester City, are taking the lead with socially distant celebrations following his goals against both Southampton and Chelsea.
Manchester City were careful to avoid a pile on when they put four past Crystal Palace
The Premier League has formally agreed to trial concussion substitutes, which could be used as early as next week.
The 20 top flight clubs agreed in principle to the move before Christmas and voted through the rule change today.
The league is still in discussion with Fifa and the International FA Board (Ifab) – the game’s law-making body – over the details of the implementation, so no date has been agreed.
However, if the final discussions are completed the substitutes could be in place for next week’s matches.
The rule change will allow clubs to introduce two permanent substitutes where a player may have suffered a concussion, in addition to the three changes they can already make. In these circumstances, the opposition would also be allowed to make a change at the same time.
A similar trial is also due take place in FA Cup matches once agreement is reached with Ifab.
The Ifab protocols have been criticised by neurologist Dr Willie Stewart, who has been a leading campaigner to recognise the risk of head injuries and dementia in football. He is in favour of temporary substitutes to allow detailed assessment of players .
Managers had expressed doubt as to whether players could celebrate goals without a hug. Among them was Southampton manager Ralph Hassenhuttl and Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola.
However, City’s players showed admirable restraint when they put four past Crystal Palace at the Etihad, with Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho, the captain, prominent in averting a pile on.
Although some top-tier players forgot the guidelines in the moments following goals going in, and others inexpicably maintain their pre-match huddles, the response was encouraging overall.
And Whitehall sources have told Sportsmail they are also happy with the response and see ‘signs of progress’, although that needs to continue.
As infection rates ramped up in the country and in clubs in recent weeks, some managers had threatened to break ranks with West Brom boss Sam Allardyce arguing for a circuit break and Newcastle manager Steve Bruce saying it was ‘morally wrong’ for football to continue.
However, the latest bi-weekly testing results returned exceptionally low numbers within the Premier League bubble with just 16 new Covid cases (down from 36 the previous week), an infection rate of 0.51% compared to 2.06% nationwide and around 3% among people aged 18-35 in the wider community.
In a further boost to the Premier League, Aston Villa boss Dean Smith has come out strongly in favour of the new protocols, after his side suffered 14 Covid cases among staff and players.
Despite the outbreak, Smith never considered calling for the season to be paused. He said: ‘I believe it should continue. We knew there were going to be changes to fixtures and we were going into uncharted territory.’
Now, all eyes will be on the FA Cup Fourth Round this weekend, after high profile rule breaches in the third round.
As well as exuberant celebrations on the pitch, there were also raucous scenes in the dressing rooms after Chorley dispatched Championship side Derby County and Crawley knocked out Leeds United.
Crawley Town fully celebrated their remarkable win over Leeds United in the FA Cup
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