Premier League clubs are determined to complete the season
The pause on the 2019-20 English football season will remain in place until at least 30 April and the cut-off date for the campaign to be completed has been pushed back “indefinitely”.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented actions.
Yet after a week of high-profile meetings at Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and EFL, the brutal truth remains that no-one, not owners, chief executives, players or fans, has any idea when the game will be able to start again. No-one can be sure when, or how, it will end.
Plans are being drawn up. Discussions will continue. But there is no guarantee any of them will be activated.
BBC Sport’s Simon Stone tries to give clarity to some of the unanswered questions.
What do we know for certain?
Some substantial decisions have been made this week. Euro 2020 and next summer’s Copa America have been put back a year. Fifa’s new Club World Cup has been put on hold. The European Under-21 Championship will be delayed to 2022 as, almost certainly, will the 2021 Women’s European Championship, which England will host.
In England, professional football is on hold until 30 April at the earliest. The season itself has been put back indefinitely.
There is unanimity amongst the 20 Premier League clubs – in private as well as in their statement – for the current campaign to reach a proper conclusion.
One source with knowledge of the situation has told the BBC work is now beginning to gain clarity over exactly how far the season could be pushed back in order for that to be achieved.
But there is already an end date that the entire European game is loosely working towards. Ideally, the campaign will end on 30 June.
‘We’ve got to finish season’ – Deeney
Why 30 June?
This date is significant for a number of reasons.
Firstly, contracts tend to run to this point. Players have been able to sign pre-contract terms with clubs in other countries since 1 January.
Even if “normal” transfers are done before then, most do not become active until 1 July.
Any extension to the season beyond the end of June would require a change to the rules. World players’ union FIFPro has spoken to Fifa about the practicalities of this, with a blanket extension of a couple of months being suggested. This is possible. But it would be far easier not to have to implement it.
It is not just player contracts though. Changes in kit suppliers and sponsors also tend to come into force on 1 July.
It may seem fairly straightforward to conclude the sponsor of a kit should remain the same for an entire season. But what if a promotional campaign had been set up around a new shirt at the same time as a club was playing with the old shirt, made by a different company, with a different logo?
In the advertising world, where huge amounts are being spent on “maximising the brand”, these things matter.
Another factor is that 30 June is viewed as the final date for seasons to conclude across Europe without having a significant impact on the following campaign.
With a short break, clubs could have a three-week pre-season and be ready to go again in August.
Under the circumstances, it is inconceivable any of the big clubs would be arranging the kind of extensive summer tours that have become the norm, so, more likely, they would have a couple of friendlies before starting again. The Premier League’s opening weekend is due to be on 8 August.
Uefa feels if the season ends on 30 June, they could squeeze in all the qualifying rounds for their tournaments before the group stages begin in September.
When would season have to start again to be finished for 30 June?
There are nine rounds of Premier League fixtures remaining, plus the two matches postponed because of Manchester City and Aston Villa reaching the Carabao Cup final. In addition, the FA Cup needs to be played to a finish from the quarter-final stage. The Champions League and Europa League are both still at the last-16 stage.
Though these dates are not confirmed, discussions taking place off the back of the Uefa meeting on Tuesday are centring around the Champions League final being played on 27 June and the Europa League final on 24 June.
Of Premier League clubs, Manchester City face the maximum number of fixtures; 19. Chelsea and Manchester United could both have 18 left. This number could be cut by two if Uefa decide to play the quarter-finals and semi-finals of their competitions as one-off matches, as has been proposed.
And this is why calling matches off until 30 April, as announced by the English game on Thursday, is so significant.
Given Uefa has said its intention is to reschedule Euro 2020 play-offs for June, re-starting the season at the beginning of May “just about” allows the campaign to conclude by the end of June, BBC Sport has been told.
It would mean using every available midweek slot and, for the busiest clubs, utilising their squads to play twice in a very short space of time. It was by no means ideal but Liverpool played two games in two days in different continents this season, so it clearly can be done.
How realistic is football in May?
BBC Sport has been told by a Premier League source that unless they are blocked from doing so by the government, the intention is to restart the season as soon as practical from 30 April.
There is a good reason why the government might want that to happen given in the 2016-17 season alone, the Premier League generated £3.3bn in tax revenue.
There is an acceptance if a return happens, it is likely to be behind closed doors, as was the case with the new Aussie Rules season which started in Melbourne on Thursday.
The belief is that, after what would then be seven weeks without a top-flight game, the country would be ready to watch some high-level sport again and actually benefit from it.
There is certainly merit in this view.
However, there is also an alternative theory, which for those who are keen to see the game restart is not quite so optimistic.
Firstly, there are the practicalities.
On Wednesday, it was announced schools were being shut in England for the overwhelming majority of pupils from Monday. The government’s medical advisors do not expect the coronavirus pandemic to reach its peak until June and are advising against all non-essential travel.
Even if matches were being played behind closed doors, they would require medical professionals to be present. The chances are, some kind of policing would also be required should it become apparent fans were travelling to stadiums anyway, as happened at Paris St-Germain recently.
Paris Saint-Germain fans gather outside closed stadium
Then there are the players and the club staff.
It seems a long time ago now but it is only a week since the Premier League released a statement saying all last weekend’s games were going ahead. That situation changed within hours when Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for coronavirus.
BBC Sport was told by one source that in a similar situation following the resumption, the idea would be for either a single match to be postponed or the competing club would use the players they had available.
This would seem to go against one of the major reasons for continuing with the season in the first place rather than declaring it null and void, which is to protect the integrity of the respective competitions.
The view of the players is also crucial.
The BBC has been told the Professional Footballers’ Association is working with all the relevant bodies and is committed to completing the season. However, it is not prioritising this above the general health of the nation, which it regards as paramount.
Under those circumstances, it is difficult to see the PFA being happy at games being played while there is the slightest chance of anyone at them being infected.
Is it definite the season will be finished?
West Ham managing director Karren Brady was derided for saying the season should be declared “null and void” in her newspaper column, with most believing it was blatant opportunism on behalf of a club perilously close to the relegation zone.
Yet someone who is part of the group tasked with trying to reconfigure the European season told the BBC that unless teams start training again by the beginning of May, it would be “difficult” to complete the season.
Given England went from hosting 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans in Liverpool to having its entire school system closed down within the space of a week and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned of “further and faster measures” being possible, there is simply no guarantee about professional football being played at any point in the near future.
Without that, there remains the possibility for Brady’s assessment to become reality, although so too is the possibility of the season being declared over on 30 June or the campaign being extended into July and beyond.
It is against this uncertainty that football’s senior figures are trying to plot a way forward for the game.
Everyone agrees, the task is really not very easy.