Quest for 'new normal' in football

'Project Restart' is in full swing to bring a conclusion to the 2019-20 premier league season for which the remaining 92 games need to be completed. That is dependent on a lot of factors the major one being by early June the curve of infected people with the corona virus would have been flattened in the UK to free the NHS staff to conduct tests twice a week on all football players, limited staff and media for six weeks totaling some 30,000 tests. Olympic village style of facility where all players of different teams stay but individually in separate rooms and travel only to and from the ground to play is being mooted. Location is still being worked out with the bottom six teams mainly located in the south except Villa which might sway the decision as a crowded city like London is likely to be avoided.

Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish made a well balanced case for 'Project Restart' that "sporting integrity" alone demanded the season must be completed and supported UK governments cause to raise morale through football "It has the power to lighten lives; why not see if we can use that power again?" He ended by quoting Spanish La Liga head Javier Tebas "If important economic sectors cannot restart, in a safe and controlled manner, they could end up disappearing. That could happen to professional football." Few clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham, Brighton have allowed players to return to training although individually this has started the process of restarting and others including United might follow soon.

Will be interesting to see how following scenarios would be negotiated given that football is a contact sport unlike tennis:
  • What if one of the players test positive during this restart? Will a second XI or reserves team play instead or next match be forfeited or points shared.
  • Will players that have come in contact with the infected player on the pitch be quarantined for 14 days?
  • Will spitting due to constant running or exhaustion invite a yellow or red card offense?
  • Goal celebrations might be muted to limit contact, but can't control the crowded goalmouth while taking a corner.
  • Teams battling relegation will miss their fans vocal home support that acts like the 12th man in crucial matches.
  • Without match-day revenues the top six clubs will be most impacted as they will not be able to fill their large stadiums and perhaps this limited setup might even the monetary imbalance temporarily.
  • Liverpool are so far ahead that they might field their B team and still win the league easily.
  • Few players from each team might decide not play putting the competition in jeopardy.
  • Will be difficult to rule out fans congregating outside the empty stadiums especially for crucial fixtures like Everton-Liverpool derby and other relegation six pointers.
All eyes on German Bundesliga which might return this month. Germany has the best corona virus testing mechanism in the world that resulted in lowest mortality rate that's a testament to the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel. Luckily DFB is also lead by Christian Seifert since 2005 who has overseen impressive growth in revenues for Bundesliga welcomed the government decision to restart "It is associated with a great responsibility for the clubs and their employees to implement the medical and organizational requirements in a disciplined manner. Games without stadium spectators are not an ideal solution for anyone. In a crisis threatening the very existence of some clubs, however, it is the only way to ensure the continued existence of the leagues in their current form." Authorities have reported 10 positive cases across top two divisions. Borussia Monchengladbach has developed a new means to earn revenue by asking fans to donate cut-outs to fill the stadium. Bundesliga games will be played as usual with home and away format without the need for a neutral venue but without fans.

Ed Woodward was pragmatic about the future as well as cognizant about the present situation when he said that big money transfers are ignoring the realities that face the sport. This raised questions about Jadon Sancho being lured with iconic number 7 jersey to Manchester United. Sancho was the first player across the big five leagues to have double digit goals and assists this season. New reality might dry up potential suitors for Paul Pogba who has yet to discuss his future which may include a new deal to extend his stay at Old Trafford or use the proceeds from his sale to complete the squad re-build. David de Gea is a year away from completing 10 years and said "I hope I can be here for many more years." which will auger well with fans.

United hierarchy would be busy pre-planning the work usually done at the end of season like deciding on new jersey, refurbishing Old Trafford facilities and relaying the pitch, possible postponement of summer tour which was to Asia this time, tweaking pre-season training and fitness regime, prospective new shirt sponsors as deal with Chevrolet comes to an end in 2021, finalizing new player recruits. Trafford Council gave approval to barrier seating idea mooted by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) and Fans Forum for initial 1,500 seats while the atmosphere section at Stretford End is being extended to south-west corner.

Extended time off during this lock down would have turned United's attention to the next stars like Ferran Torres for Jadon Sancho, Matheus Pereira for Jack Grealish, Sandro Tonali for James Maddison, Kalvin Phillips for Wilfred Ndidi, Kai Havertz for Danny van de Beek, Odsonne Edourad for Moussa Dembele, Dayot Upamecano for Kalidou Koulibaly while experience criterion might force Luis Alberto for Saul Niguez and Mauro Icardi for Timo Werner. United remain in contention to sign Jude Bellingham from Birmingham and trying their best to retain Angel Gomes who holds record for being the youngest debutant breaking Duncan Edwards record that stood for 64 years in May, 2017.

To show solidarity with the NHS the clubs name in front of Old Trafford was only lit with letters in capitals "maNcHeSter united" demonstrating original thinking supporting the noble cause. Among the many initiatives during this pandemic that earned genuine praise from fans the best one is from former players calling out old and devoted season ticket holders to enquire about their health.

Threat of litigation from bottom clubs who might be relegated is forcing the Premier League to play the remaining matches to determine the final league table. For such an unprecedented event like this pandemic the ideal response would have been to freeze the table as is with no relegation but promotion from Championship, and in the next three years get back to normal 20 teams from 23. This would mean playing 44 games in a league season not 38 putting more pressure on already crowded calendar and necessitate the removal of League Cup introduced by Alan Hardaker the secretary of Football League in 1960 - a competition which lost its relevance long time ago. The inaugural Premier League season in 1992 had 22 teams which was brought down to 20 in 1995. Euro's postponing to next year will make national team games important in the run up to the competition and the governing body UEFA might not like distraction of an overcrowded schedule before the event.

Second wave of the last Pandemic the Spanish flu in 1918 caused the maximum fatalities compared to the first and third wave. Science back then wasn't as advanced as it is now to enable different simultaneous approach's being tried all around the world for a vaccine. Co-ordination on a global scale remains a challenge thus expect a few start, stop and restart's. This remains the most challenging situation facing the world since the second world war, though football in front of human lives fades in comparison its role to restore public morale during and after the last great war amid strict rations in UK and Europe can never be ruled out.

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