Premier League plea for unity amid claims strugglers are trying to block Project Restart

EXCLUSIVE: Premier League pleads for unity amid claims that the bottom six are trying to BLOCK Project Restart to avoid relegation – while top clubs want guarantees that three teams WILL go down

The will make a desperate plea for unity this week amid claims that the bottom six clubs are sabotaging plans to resume the season.

In another sign of the destructive conflict gripping the top flight, Sportsmail can reveal that some of the Big Six are lobbying for guarantees that promotion and relegation will still be implemented, even if the season is curtailed.

The dramatic move following last Friday’s shareholders’ meeting represents an attempt by the biggest clubs to persuade those in the bottom three to vote for playing on, as it would be their only hope of avoiding relegation.

The split over the merits of Project Restart is largely based on where clubs stand in the table, with an executive at one club telling Sportsmail on Sunday that the objections raised by clubs near the bottom were a deliberate act of sabotage.

The Premier League have attempted to maintain a show of solidarity throughout the increasingly acrimonious debate that has raged since the season was suspended on March 13. But that facade finally cracked over the weekend. 

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber opposed publicly the Premier League’s plan to complete the campaign using 10 neutral venues by saying that such a move would damage the integrity of the competition, while Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish responded in the Sunday Times with a strong expression of the social and economic case for football’s return.

Such divergent opinions appear to be diplomatically expressed versions of the robust debate that took place last Friday and the more heated discussions that are occurring in private.

‘They are threatening to destroy football just to avoid the risk of relegation,’ is how one executive put it. ‘Their thinking is so short-sighted.’

In another indication of the febrile atmosphere, one source present at the meeting told Sportsmail that 13 clubs were in favour of Project Restart, six opposed and one was undecided. Others are claiming there are at least eight rebel clubs, which would be enough to veto the plan.

Such are the tensions that some clubs have been accused of using their medical staff to stoke fear among players about the health risks of returning to action.

The Premier League will need 14 votes in favour for matches to resume, with June 12 the favoured restart date, but that ballot is unlikely to take place at a meeting on Friday, which has been scheduled to follow publication of the Government’s lockdown exit strategy the previous evening.

Instead, the Premier League’s plan is to continue to pursue a step-by-step approach based on increasing the intensity of training from individual, through small groups to full , in the hope that the spread of Covid-19 has slowed significantly by the time a decision is required at the end of the month.

While the finer details on neutral venues, broadcasting, promotion and relegation — and a Plan B if the season is suspended for a second time — still need to be resolved, the Premier League are hoping to secure an agreement to return in principle.

Chief executive Richard Masters is expected to spell out the need for unity, and to urge clubs to put self-interest and squabbling aside. While there is sympathy regarding the integrity issues raised by Barber and others, the Premier League want clubs to commit to doing everything they can to resume in order to prevent financial collapse.

Most clubs have accepted that next season’s season-ticket money and sponsorship income will be diminished due to the strong likelihood that social distancing measures will be maintained, and the loss of the £762million outstanding on the television contract would put many in jeopardy.

The clubs will also be urged to emphasise the Premier League’s importance to the country as a whole, and its potential role in kick-starting the economic recovery from the shutdown and improving the nation’s health. 

A report from accountancy firm Ernst & Young published last year stated that top-flight clubs paid £3.3billion in tax during the 2016-17 season and employed 12,000 people directly, as well as supporting almost 100,000 full-time jobs in other companies, many of which would be lost without Premier League football.

In addition, the Premier League and clubs support numerous community and grassroots projects, some of which would be scrapped as part of cost-cutting measures.

The Premier League’s Project Restart is strongly supported by the FA and the EFL, who are eager for matches to resume as soon as possible in the hope that it will enable their own competitions to follow.

Other sports are watching with interest, particularly cricket and rugby, who also have valuable television deals which finance their entire structure.

The chief executive of another sport told Sportsmail: ‘We are a million miles behind the Premier League in terms of resources, testing capacity and medical provision. If they are unable to resume this summer, then we have no chance.’

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