Professional clubs in the West Country are gearing up for a return to football in the coming weeks, with an aim to complete the 2019-20 season, writes Andrew Clayton.
The outbreak of covid-19 means that a ball has not been kicked in over a month, and despite the government’s decision to extend the national lockdown for another three weeks, league organisers are preparing to get the game going again. On Friday, Premier League clubs agreed to complete this year’s campaign but did not give a time frame of when that would be achieved.
AFC Bournemouth, who sat just inside the relegation zone when the competition was suspended on March 13, have nine matches left to play in their survival fight, out of 92 fixtures remaining.
While a potential date of completion by June 30 had previously been considered, it is understood that clubs did not agree to have the competition finished by then and instead looked at how mass testing on a match day could be implemented.
The English Football League (EFL), meanwhile, have been more concrete in their approach by setting an unofficial target of May 16 to get teams training again, and playing by June 6, in the best possible scenario.
A board meeting earlier this week resulted in the unanimous decision of finishing the 2019-20 season for the Championship, League One and League Two.
Like the top tier, the logistics of returning depend entirely on how the pandemic develops, and while EFL chairman Rick Parry did not put a date in his official letter on Thursday, he revealed that it was likely that forthcoming matches would be played behind closed doors and shown via iFollow, the EFL’s club streaming platform.
Exeter City were fourth in League Two when football was suspended, and chairman Julian Tagg exclusively told The Independent that the sport must be pragmatic in its approach to resuming.
“People want to get this season finished, and if you want to see the season finished, the reality is there must be a pragmatism, that people understand that it is required and necessary.”
The news will be welcomed by the region’s Football League clubs. Alongside Exeter in League Two, Plymouth Argyle are also fighting for a promotion spot and Forest Green Rovers will aim to end their season on a high too.
In League One, Bristol Rovers’ fresh-faced boss Ben Garner will relish the chance to develop his squad and in the Championship, Bristol City remain dark horses for the final play-off spot.
The future of the National League, conversely, remains unclear, with clubs asked earlier this month to vote on ending the campaign. The decision to prematurely finish the season would deliver a blow to play-off hopefuls Yeovil Town and Torquay United – fourth and 15th respectively – even if the EFL agree to take promotions. In National League South, meanwhile, third place Bath City and fourth place Weymouth could also miss out.
Yeovil Town chairman Scott Priestnall has been one of the most vocal club owners about the National League’s completion, and exclusively told The Independent that he is reluctant to vote at the present time and wants to see the season concluded whenever possible.
“I understand how they’ve come to this solution, or what they class as their solution. They’ve had an awful lot of pressure from National League clubs,” he said.
“I just think we are voting on effectively ending the season without knowing what the potential ramifications are. The top seven or top eight could have a short competition over a week or ten days, at any stage between when football can come back and next season, and either one or two teams from that competition goes up.”