Matt Maher: Nothing is perfect but this may be as good as it gets for the Premier League's return
It’s coming back then.
After three months on hold, during which curtailment often looked the most likely outcome, the football season has emerged blinking into the light and hurtling toward a resumption.
Just a fortnight today, we should know the results of the first Premier League matches to be played since March 9. A few days later the Championship, which last saw a ball kicked in anger on March 8, should also have returned.
Neither division’s comeback is yet set in stone. There are still details to be agreed, important i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, chief among them the issue of what should happen if, for whatever reason, the season gets halted again and cannot be completed.
It will be high on the agenda today when Premier League clubs hold their latest conference call.
Yet even if the issue remains unresolved, it will not be enough to knock Project Restart off course, at least not now. It certainly didn’t in Germany, where Bundesliga clubs have continually deferred making a decision on the subject. Getting the season back up and running was seen as the most important thing and the question of what happens if it stops again was always one that could wait.
From the moment top-flight clubs agreed to resume non-contact training now more than two weeks ago, football’s return has found momentum which will now only be stopped by a jump in the infection rate and a reversal of the government’s policy of lockdown easing.
The self-interests which have dominated the discussion since sport was suspended on March 13 remain, of course. No club is happy with every single aspect of the return, or the process with which it is being achieved. The EFL’s surprise statement on Sunday announcing the Championship’s provisional June 20 resumption, to give just one example, angered many in the second tier.
But clubs have slowly become united by the realisation any football is better than none at all. Gradually, they have won round the people they needed to.
Managers and players, but for a few notable exceptions, are hungry for the return.
Broadcasters and the sports media have always wanted it, while there is a sense enough supporters will be willing to stomach it, despite the fact none will be allowed to witness it first-hand. As for the question of whether it is morally right for sport to resume at a time when the daily death toll still extends into the hundreds and the coronavirus alert level remains high? That has always really been the government’s to answer. We may soon reflect that the Premier League’s most inspired move since the shutdown was, for the most part, to do nothing.
When meetings during the early weeks of the crisis produced little of any real note, league bosses resisted clamour to call off the show. Instead they waited, hoping the circumstances they required for a restart might fall into place.
They duly have, though just how narrow the window of opportunity is demonstrated by a schedule which will see the remaining 92 top-flight matches completed in the space of just 40 days. The Championship, which has followed the Premier League’s lead every step of the way, initially claimed it would need 56 days to finish the campaign. The plan now is to get it wrapped up in just 41. Needless to say, it is a long way from perfect. Yet it is surely preferable to the alternative of prolonged hand-wringing now being seen in Leagues One, Two and the National League as a prelude to an extended legal battle.
By and large, the season’s resumption is good news for the Midlands’ major clubs.
Wolves will get the chance to claim European qualification on the pitch rather than face a wait for their fate to be determined by a mathematical formula.
Likewise Villa have an opportunity to fight their way out of trouble, instead of being saved – or as was more likely the case condemned – by a permanent stoppage.
Albion always held a strong hand had the season been unable to resume. But there were never any guarantees they would be granted promotion had the campaign not progressed beyond 37 matches, regardless of the EFL and FA’s wishes.
For the Baggies, the restart is not without risk, yet winning promotion on the pitch will surely end any arguments.
The one thing we will forever be denied is knowing what precisely would have happened had the virus never existed and the season continued as normal.
We will never know how Wolves would have fared away to West Ham less than 72 hours after playing away in Athens. We will never know how Albion’s derby with Blues would have panned out had the fixture taken place on the original date, or whether Villa would have been able to recover quickly enough from a Monday night drubbing at Leicester to claim a result against Chelsea the following weekend, at a period when Dean Smith’s position was coming under serious threat.
It is impossible to predict what will happen when the season now restarts under very different circumstances. There is no form guide. Some teams will flourish, others will flounder and it seems sensible to expect a surprise or six along the way.
Preserving the sporting integrity of a campaign placed on hiatus for three months was never going to be possible. But after a long wait, the 2019/20 season now seems likely to at least deliver some closure.
That, when all is said and done, is better than nothing.