When the buses – and it will be more than one bus and possibly as many as three carrying a team – pull into the Premier League stadia 90 minutes before kick-off with the return of football it will be a very different experience for everyone involved.
The clubs have been talking to the coach companies they use to modify the vehicles so that social distancing is observed on board with medical staff carrying out temperature tests on the players before they disembark.
Their journey to this point will also have been altered with clubs encouraged to fly on the day of games, rather than travel down the day before and stay in hotels. They have also been discouraged from using trains with larger aircraft being chartered to, again, help comply with social distancing requirements.
The Premier League will allow hotel stays, though, with a team of eight compliance officers asked to vet potential places which the clubs are urged should be as close as possible to the stadium where they will be playing with the time spent there as little as possible.
Some clubs will use hotels more frequently than others although a quirk of the situation that needs to be resolved is that the Government’s dispensation to allow athletes to stay overnight covers players and coaches but not medical and other support staff.
Unlike in Germany the squads are not being quarantined so if, as with Augsburg coach Heiko Herrlich, they have to go out and buy toothpaste then they can without, unlike Herrlich, being banned.
The players will pass through two zones: green, which is the perimeter of the stadium, such as a car park, amber, which is the outer area of the stadium such as the stands, before arriving in the red zone which is the inner sanctum of the players entrance, dressing room, tunnel area and the pitch.
Anyone who wants to go into the red zone will have to have a ‘clinical passport’ downloaded onto their phones, which can be scanned as a barcode, or printed as a piece of paper to confirm they have had a negative result from a Covid test within the past five days.
Just 105 people – from around 300 allowed into the stadium – will be permitted into the red zone. There will be a strict allocation: 37 passes per team to include 20 players, 12 coaching and medical staff and a further five essential staff. After that there will be the referee, two assistant referees, a fourth official and another in the stand plus Hawk-Eye operators, stadium infrastructure workers (for lighting, ground staff etc), tunnel doctor and doping control officers.
The players will pass into modified dressing rooms through a one-way system with all doors remaining open so they do not have to touch them. However they will not have to wear face-masks unless they want to. Dressing rooms are an obvious problem area and more than one is expected to be used per team with corporate lounges and even the media room in some stadia being adapted.
After changing the players will go into a larger area – at Goodison Park, where Everton will host Liverpool on June 21, a temporary structure is to be built at the car park behind the Park End. From there the players will move into the arena to do their warm-ups, in smaller groups and for a shorter period, again making sure they observe social distancing.
Every journey on and off the pitch will be followed by the players having to hand sanitise and when they return to the dressing room for the team-talk ahead of kick-off it will be briefer than usual, restricted to just 15 minutes.
If the stadium has two tunnels the teams will walk out separately. If there is only one then they will go out one after the other with the away team first and players will not have to gather in the tunnel together, as usual, before doing so. Equipment checks – boots, shinpads and so on – by the match officials will still take place but not all together.
There will be no pre-match handshake although the Premier League will still have its board up and the anthem will still be played but the teams will not walk past each other, as per the custom. There will still be a coin toss before the game begins.
Off the pitch the technical areas will be adapted to ensure social distancing with expanded benches – or players spilling out into the lower rows of the stands especially with nine substitutes now being named – although only the fourth official will be required to wear a face mask.
Staff will be reminded they should remain seated with a clear directive not to crowd around or talk to the fourth official during the game and managers also told to make sure they do not encroach.
The match itself – it is hoped – will be as close as possible to normal and although players will not be cautioned should they spit, clear their nose or celebrate goals as normal (the measure was considered by Fifa) referees will be told to remind them not to do so.
There will be a ‘celebration’ camera if players want to use one, piped crowd noise and, for the first 12 matches, players will wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of their shirts instead of their names as part of the anti-racism campaign. After that there will be a badge on the shirt alongside one in support of the NHS. Players will be allowed to ‘take a knee’ prior to kick off and during their celebrations.
If the ball goes out of play and especially if it is cleared into the empty stands – the lower tiers of which will have club ‘wrap-rounds’ to make them appear more colourful, with some clubs using waterproof card-board cut-outs of fans – then the referee can direct a player to take another sterilised ball which will be placed on cones around the perimeter of the pitch as there will be no ball-boys. VAR will be in use.
Mid-way through each half, during a natural pause in play, a drinks break will be allowed in a concession to the fact games are being played in summer with players told to use their own water bottles. If there is an injury or a player needs treatment the medics and physios who come on will wear PPE.
At the end of the game players cannot shake hands, embrace or swap shirts and will leave the pitch as quickly as possible although more time will be allowed for them to return for longer post-match warm-downs in an effort to prevent muscular injuries given the time-off they have had and the intense period during which the fixtures are being fulfilled.
Pre and post-match press conferences will be held pitch-side via a videoconferencing platform and using long boom microphones, with the plans seeing a huge reduction in the media present. Some journalists, if they are not in the stadium, can apply to watch the briefings online from home. There will be no man-of-the-match ceremonies.
Players will use the showers, with social distancing in place, and can undergo some treatments, such as massages which have to be approved by the club doctor and are restricted to just 15 minutes, before leaving the stadium as quickly as possible. Most clubs plan to provide their own food rather than rely on the host team to provide any. The coaches will pull away and the home team players will return to their own cars which, of course, will be spaced out at least three places apart as football adapts to its new normal.