A year on from when coronavirus first brought the suspension of the Premier League, its Chief Executive Richard Masters has talked about the challenges of keeping the competition running during the pandemic. He also expressed his optimism that fans will soon be back in stadiums and that a sense of normality to the game will return.
"It’s been a hell of a journey," Masters said. "All that uncertainty, the huge challenges we’ve faced, the financial difficulties as well. Pretty much the whole nation has faced that combination of challenges, and football has been no different.
"It has been an incredible journey, but I think we can look back with some pride and say that we’ve made a big contribution.
"Despite all the challenges … there’s a strong recognition at club level and at the players’ level that it’s a real privilege to keep the competition going.
"We’re able to be part of a normal life if you like, something to look forward to at the weekends.
"We’ve been able to put all of the Premier League matches on television and work with our broadcasters to deliver that, and the viewing figures show that millions of people are tuning in to watch what happens, so it’s really satisfying to be part of that."
Masters recalled the events of 12 March a year ago, when it was initially decided to continue the competition despite postponing the Manchester City v Arsenal match set for that evening. "Everything changed" when positive test results for Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi were revealed, he said.
"We seemed to have a consensus that it was the right thing to do [to carry on]," Masters said. "At about 10 o’clock that night we put out the statement saying we were going to carry on, and within half an hour I’d had a call from two clubs, Vinai Venkatesham at Arsenal and Bruce Buck at Chelsea, telling me that Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi had tested positive.
"Those were the first positive COVID tests in the Premier League cohort that we knew about, and that changed everything.
"I think we can look back with some pride and say that we’ve made a big contribution"
"I remember calling my Chair, Claudia Arney and we called for a Board meeting for the following day, and an Emergency Shareholders’ Meeting the same day. We ended up postponing the League until 4 April, because we didn’t know what we were dealing with at that stage.
"Of course, it was 100 days before we would play another match."
Masters said that "Project Restart" and the completion of the 2019/20 campaign was made possible by clubs and players working together to reduce the chances of positive tests.
"There’s been really strong adherence to all the protocols, and it’s been a huge collective, collaborative effort on behalf of the Premier League and the clubs and the players and everyone involved, to get to this point," he said. "It hasn’t always been easy, there have been bumps in the road that we’ve had to navigate.
"It’s a bit like making a movie without a script. I think we got most things right over that period of time, but sure, there are things we could have done better."
Masters is optimistic about completing the season in front of fans on 23 May and, thanks to the UK vaccination programme and the Government’s rollout plans, hopes a sense of normality will return for the beginning of the 2021/22 season.
"The first step is to see that Trophy presented on 23 May, hopefully in front of 10,000 fans, somewhere in this country," he said. "Beyond that, from the beginning of next season, our goal is to have full stadia and the Government’s roadmap offers us that opportunity.
"There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before that can happen but that’s our ultimate goal: the return of full vibrant Premier League stadia and a return to the normal Premier League."
Masters also looked ahead on an important year for the Premier League and English football.
"We need to unite Premier League clubs around a plan for the future," he said. "A lot has happened over the last 12 months, and of course next year is the last year of our current financial programme. So we need to set a clear and secure financial plan for the Premier League, and therefore the rest of the pyramid, for the next three years.
"If we can get all of that done successfully by the end of this year it will be a good year.
"If you could throw in a successful Champions League win and perhaps even England winning the Euros, that would be even better!"