The return of Premier League football moved one step closer on Monday following a virtual meeting between clubs and shareholders.
Squads of players will now return to training on Tuesday while maintaining social distancing measures.
The decision was voted on unanimously by shareholders as the Premier League progressed with attempts to restart the 2019-20 season “when safe to do so”.
It was confirmed in a statement that the first stage had been agreed “in consultation with players, managers, Premier League club doctors, independent experts, and the Government”.
“Strict medical protocols of the highest standard will ensure everyone returns to training in the safest environment possible,” it said.
Contact training is not yet permitted for clubs.
“The health and wellbeing of all participants is the Premier League’s priority, and the safe return to training is a step-by-step process,” the league added.
“Full consultation will now continue with players, managers, clubs, the PFA, and LMA as protocols for full-contact training are developed.”
The protocols had been presented to players and managers last week before being agreed during Monday’s video meeting.
Players from some clubs, including Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, had already returned to their respective training grounds but were limited to strict, individual training.
Last week, the British government said it had “opened the door” for the return of elite sport, and Monday’s announcement means the Premier League can move forward with “Project Restart” – the name being given to efforts to restart the football season.
Guarantees of safety to players
Top-flight football in England has been suspended since March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and on April 3, the competition was suspended indefinitely until further notice.
Monday’s meeting brought the return of the Premier League a “stage” closer, but several hurdles remain.
The resumption of team training will only happen on Tuesday if players adhere to a set of strict rules. These reportedly include players changing at home and driving to training grounds on their own.
Other protocols could see the disinfecting of training equipment, such as playing surfaces, balls, and goalposts.
Clubs will also have to maintain strict coronavirus testing of players and staff.
Newcastle United was among the first clubs to confirm that players were being tested at their training ground.
“I must stress that phase one looks as if it’s as safe as it can be,” said Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce.
“I’m sure everyone will be delighted that we’re trying to make that effort.”
It is expected that the second phase of Project Restart will begin in June, where players would be permitted to train in larger groups before contact training can resume.
The UK government has been accused of downplaying the coronavirus pandemic by accelerating the return of football, and some players have expressed concerns about resuming training. The UK currently has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, with more than 34,000 fatalities attributed to COVID-19.
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has been involved in Premier League meetings and has raised the issue of players not wanting to be put at risk by returning too soon.
“We have been assured of the intentions of all that there would be no resumption unless guarantees of safety could be given to the players,” said PFA deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes.
The league and its clubs have stressed repeatedly that they will only return when it is safe to do so and will not take resources away from the UK’s National Health System.
A revised date for the restart?
When English football was suspended on March 13, there were 92 total Premier League fixtures still to be played in the season.
Throughout discussions, clubs have remained committed to completing the 2019-20 campaign amid compelling financial and sporting reasons.
The Premier League had previously identified June 12 for matches to possibly start again, albeit behind closed doors with no fans in attendance.
But there is now an expectation this date will need to be pushed back.
While the German Bundesliga resumed competitive action at the weekend, players had resumed non-contact training nearly five weeks before.
It is estimated that a new date for the return of the Premier League could be 19 or 26 June.
It had also been initially proposed that matches could be played at neutral grounds, but a number of clubs had voiced opposition to this suggestion.
UEFA has set a deadline of May 25 for European leagues to finalise plans for restarting the football season, which it hopes to be completed by the end of July.
Between now and then, further meetings will take place between in the UK between football authorities, including assessing the success or failure of Project Restart’s stage one.