A group of Premier League clubs are to hold talks with their local police forces this week, with hopes the idea of using neutral venues can be scrapped.
A number of clubs believe their local force, along with their safety advisory group, which issue safety certificates allowing matches to take place, will confirm they are willing to sanction the playing of traditional ‘home’ matches.
However, Sky Sports News can confirm definitively there is no local agreement on football policing at Premier League and EFL grounds. Policing policy is taken from a national standpoint which local forces follow.
To ease fears that large crowds of supporters will gather at stadia up and down the country, clubs will issue strict warnings to fans – and will hand out long-term stadium bans (lasting several years) to any fans identified near their ground on matchdays.
Monday’s meeting of Premier League stakeholders agreed that the league would try to convince the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to relax its stance on the need for neutral venues when planned fixtures return on June 12 and 13.
Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, head of UK Football Unit, says dialogue has taken place about how the season can restart so he can provide guidelines to forces across the country.
He said on Tuesday: “Following a positive meeting between police, government and football last night, we will be jointly exploring a range of options to identify a way forward, which minimises any risks to public safety and unnecessary pressure on public services, but facilitates a sensible restart to the season, to support the economic and morale benefits associated with the sport.”
Roberts, though, has reiterated his preference that neutral venues are used. He is now awaiting all proposals from the Premier League.
To date, no clubs have been told they are being considered as ‘neutral’ grounds, while more than half of them believing the integrity of the competition will be adversely affected by the use of neutral venues.
New Premier League CEO Richard Masters held a Q&A on Monday during which he said no clubs had issued any ultimatums over the use of neutral grounds.
But he added: “All clubs would prefer to play at home and they accept it’s an issue to be addressed. That pretty much summarises it.
“It’s fair to say that it is not an issue which is unique to any part of the league.
“I think some of our clubs would argue that in relation to policing their own fans that they have a good relationship with them, and that they encourage their own fans not to turn up outside their home venues while they’re playing behind closed doors.
“They’re in a better position to control that, but it’s not a matter of convincing, this has to be a decision that’s come to mutually.”
Analysis: Why home and away games matter to clubs
Sky Sports’ Peter Smith:
If the Premier League season resumes, the outcome of the final fixtures will transform clubs’ finances for seasons to come.
While Liverpool would be all-but assured of the title, the race for Champions League qualification and the fight to avoid relegation are far from certain.
The impact on clubs who do or don’t succeed in those battles will only be reinforced by the financial constraints expected to be felt across the football industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
So unsurprisingly clubs are keen to defend their corner. To explore every avenue to complete the season in the fairest fashion – and without giving away an advantage to their rivals.
As a result, the neutral venues proposal has proven to be an issue for what is now a large number of clubs.
That’s because playing at home makes a difference. A Sky Sports study highlighted that Premier League teams are over 14 per cent more likely to win at home than away. But even with no fans present, familiarity with your surroundings, reduced travel time and the psychological edge of playing on your own patch makes a difference.
A small sample size of behind-closed-doors games in that Sky Sports study suggested home territory can be even more important when no fans are in attendance.
Of the teams with the biggest margin between their points-per-game records at home and away this season, five of the top seven are fighting relegation.
Aston Villa have won three-quarters of their points at home this season and have six games remaining at Villa Park. That’s the joint-most home games remaining of any club in the Premier League.
Brighton, who are in a similar position, have five games left at the Amex and have made clear they feel they have a better chance against Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle at home even without fans than on a neutral pitch.
Struggling Bournemouth have the toughest run-in, while Watford – who defeated Liverpool at Vicarage Road – and Norwich – who beat Man City at Carrow Road – know the benefit of home comforts.
Signing up to play at neutral venues may indeed prove to be the “least worst option”, as Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish told Sky Sports last week. But when the Bundesliga is relaunching with home and away fixtures and the financial futures of English clubs are on the line, Premier League clubs are pushing to explore all the avenues of a safe restart.
As Premier League chief executive Richard Masters put it on Monday night: “Everybody would prefer to play home and away if at all possible…It’s clear to see that some clubs feel more strongly about that than others.”
Brighton, Watford, Villa speak out on neutral grounds
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber was one of the first professional voices to oppose the use of neutral grounds to decide the rest of the season.
He complained they would have a “material effect” on the league’s integrity, with Brighton still due to play five home games out of their remaining nine – and sitting only two points outside the Premier League bottom three.
Two of their relegation rivals, Aston Villa and Watford, have also spoken out against the plans since then.
Aston Villa CEO Christian Purslow said the prospect of “losing £200m” was weighing heavy on clubs’ minds when they were being asked to make compromises as part of Project Restart, and added his name to those against the neutral grounds proposals.
Writing in The Times on Saturday, his counterpart at Watford, Scott Duxbury, said the Hornets were opposed to playing in neutral venues and added “at least six clubs – and I suspect more” had issues with concluding the season through a “distorted nine-game mini-league”.
“Next season, in all likelihood, we’ll start with neutral grounds, and I’m sure we’d like to get back into our stadiums as soon as possible,” he said. “There will be a distortion of the competition that way around.
“All the pitches are pretty much the same size, and an empty stadium is an empty stadium. I think it’ll be a level playing field from when we start.”