After a long and agonising wait, the Premier League is finally back. Tomorrow evening and until the end of the season, we've got the best league in the world back on our television screens, but things are obviously going to be a bit different. With all elements of Project Restart, the name given to the operation of the return of the Premier League, everything has been done and continues to be done to make sure that it’s all safe and workable - everything from handshakes to ball boys has been considered.
One of the most striking things first of all is the fact that there won’t be any fans at the grounds. Much like the other major leagues that have made a comeback in the last few weeks, such as the Bundesliga or Serie A, you won’t be hearing chants of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Anfield or “One Nil To The Arsenal!” at the Emirates - it’s quite an eerie feeling when watching games to be honest, as all you could hear in the Bundesliga certainly was the ball clattering against advertising boards when shots went wide, or players shouting commands to one another. For the Premier League though, broadcasters are going to be using a virtual crowd noise that’s reminiscent of noises heard on FIFA or PES. EA have been working with Sky to make this restarted Premier League innovative in its approach to fan engagement even without a crowd present. In the Sky Sports app, fans will be able to “select matches with friends in a video room and interact” which will have the ability to influence the noise of the virtual crowd that they hear on-screen. Maybe there’ll be some virtual chants or virtual flares involved too.
People who are allowed into the grounds though will be sectioned off into a number of zones. The first of these, the Red Zone, includes the technical area, the pitch and the tunnel, which will be limited to 110 people per ground. Each playing team will be allocated 37 passes for the red zone, with the majority going to players, and the rest going to coaches and the remaining handful to other ‘essential’ members of staff - most likely physios and alike. Quite thankfully, there are passes going to one referee, two assistants and the fourth official. The other green and amber passes are reserved for the remaining 220 or so people, including broadcasters, 25 written journalists and 15 radio broadcasters. When the Bundesliga returned, it appears that they employed a pretty similar system, but even then, there were rather stringent on the pieces that journalists could deliver to camera, and also how long they could spend outside the stadium giving some live broadcasts.
All of the remaining 92 fixtures will be featured live on TV, with just over a third of fixtures available on free-to-air television. In reality, why this wasn’t done anyway is beyond me, but then again, the price of TV rights for the Premier League has become astronomical in the last few years and the only way that firms like Sky and BT can pay for it is by charging for a subscription to the sports channels. The return of the Premier League also marks the first time since its inception back in 1992 that the BBC will be broadcasting live games, although it is only four fixtures. The rest will be split it seems between Sky, BT and Amazon. Sky are showing a few of theirs on free-to-air Pick with them being simulcast on Sky Sports too, and Amazon’s four games will also be broadcast for free, although you will have to hand over some personal information for the privilege. 25 out of Sky’s 64 games will be broadcast on Sky’s free-to-air services, although BT aren’t following suit. To have a third of all remaining Premier League games on free-to-air television though is a late bonus to those who don’t have Sky, BT, or Amazon Prime.
On the subject of handshakes, they’re going to be abandoned, which comes as no surprise given the current situation. Players have also been asked to keep personal hygiene at a high level with them also being asked not to spit on the pitch or clear their nostrils whilst playing. In addition, they’ll also have to use hand sanitiser when entering or leaving the pitch. Unlike other leagues, the Premier League hasn’t ordered players to wear face masks whilst on the subs’ bench, which is a move away from expectations. In terms of other pieces of interaction, the touchy issue of changing rooms has also been addressed. Some changing rooms will continue to be used, but as social distancing isn’t necessarily possible in all of them, bigger rooms in stadiums such as function rooms or boxes have been taken over. Teams won’t be allowed to enter the pitch side by side like usual and will either now enter one at a time or from separate sides altogether.
Ball boys are also going to be a thing of the past with the new rules and instead be replaced by what the Premier League is calling a “ball replenishment system”. Fundamentally, this is going ro be a pile of balls stacked on a cone placed at spaced intervals around the entire pitch. All of them will be disinfected before anyone does stopovers with them of course. The most intriguing of all these changes however lies in the point with the games now being held behind closed doors. Supposedly, it will result in home advantage now no longer being a thing at all in the new Premier League - the lack of fans at home grounds does make things less intimidating for the away team, and if the Bundesliga is a case in point, the percentage of home wins have fallen dramatically. Maybe it might just give Arsenal a chance away at Manchester City tomorrow night. For the rest of the league also, teams will also be allowed to make five substitutes and name a bench of nine players as opposed to the usual three and seven. The reason for this is because “matches may be played in a condensed period in different weather conditions, both of which could have impacts on player welfare” and as a result, substitutions will most likely be coming thicker and faster in the remaining 92 games of the season.
A lot of people, myself included, will be relieved to hear that the Premier League’s back from tomorrow night and it’ll be rather interesting to see how this season plays out. There’s still a lot to play for at the top and bottom ends of the table, with places for European competitions up for grabs and the task of avoiding relegation still looming for those clubs in the bottom half. This might just be one of the most exciting Premier League seasons left yet.