MANCHESTER, England — Premier League clubs could be allowed to complete the season at their own stadiums after police pulled back on their insistence that neutral venues were the only safe way of staging games during the coronavirus pandemic.
The league's leadership held talks with police on Monday night after being told by the 20 clubs that they wanted to be able to play at home, even though fans will not be allowed inside.
Mark Roberts, the head of football policing in England, had been concerned supporters would still gather outside stadiums and place an additional burden on resources as lockdown measures are eased.
But Roberts has softened his stance after "positive" talks with the league and government.
"We will be jointly exploring a range of options to identify a way forward, which minimizes 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 said.
But, with hundreds of people still dying from the virus each day, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was too early for games to be staged again in the capital which contains five Premier League clubs.
"Sadiq is ... concerned about the welfare of players competing in all professional sports, not just football," the mayor's office said in a statement. "There are huge questions to be asked how players could train safely, how they would travel to matches and how they could play competitive matches without the risk of spreading infection."
The government is planning to release a strategy this week that allows players to resume group training even as social distancing is being encouraged in wider society.
"It's about the building blocks — how long before we can go back into full contact training?" Premier League chief executive Richard Masters told reporters. "It does depend on what sort of contact because obviously you're trying to ensure the players keep themselves safe even during that contact training situation and that will have to be dealt with on a case by case basis."
It is two months since the last games were played before the league was suspended during the pandemic.
"One thing is for sure," Masters said, "all clubs will have to be safe and secure in the knowledge that their players are going to be fit before a decision on going back on the pitch is taken, given that they have had such a long layoff.
"We have talked about four weeks of training but haven't agreed yet as we haven't agreed to go back to training."
Masters said players will be consulted about how a safe environment can be created at training and then games.
"It is right that they will have concerns and questions and we need to hear those first," Masters said.
Manchester City and England forward Raheem Sterling has broader concerns.
"The moment we do go back we need to make sure it's at a moment where it's not just for footballing reasons, it's safe for not just us footballers but the whole medical staff, referees," Sterling said on his YouTube channel. "I don't know how that's going to work. I feel like once that side of the people's safety and the player's safety is secured and their well-being is being looked after, then that's the right time to go back in.
"Until then, I'm … kind of reserved and thinking what the worst outcome could be, but at the same time looking forward to it."
Players and coaches will be regularly tested for COVID-19 at training venues. Masters does not believe full squads would have to self-isolate if there is a situation like at Dynamo Dresden last week. Two players at the German second-division side tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the entire squad, coaching and supervisory staff to enter 14 days of quarantine at home.
"If a player tests positive," Masters said, "providing he has been socially distanced in the protocols, he would be isolated for a period but there would be no need for the rest of the group to be."