Premier League clubs have begun considering how reduced numbers of fans might be accommodated next season, when neutral venues could also remain as a back-up option to complete fixtures.
Although all games will be played behind closed doors for the remainder of 2019-20 campaign, scenario planning has moved to discussions about when limited numbers of fans could safely return.
Martin Semmens, Southampton’s chief executive, said that it was important to start “to imagine how we could bring our fans back to watch the team” and outlined some of the possible future options. “Everything now has to be looked at again," he told The Telegraph. "Everybody [across society] is having to reinvent what they are doing and what we do differently. So when it comes to what happens next season, whether we have got 50 fans in the boxes on their own, or 5,000 fans allowed in, whether we have to create bubbles where we can watch the game. There will be a way of finding solutions.
“Four weeks ago, discussions of fans in the stadium would be impossible to even consider, but now the good thing is we can discuss it. We don’t know how long it will be, but we will get there in the end. And that is important.
“You have to think what is the right time to invest energy and resources on that and what are the appropriate measures at the right time. I feel now we have reached a point where we can put resources into those discussions.”
While playing fixtures home and away is the clear preference of the clubs, Semmens also expects neutral venues to remain as a contingency option now and potentially next season.
“I think what they will do is set up the ability to play games at neutral venues and the ability to make that decision late on,” he said. “That’s my personal view. It makes sense to consider both options, do the planning, and then take the right advice from government when the time comes.
"It was not the right time eight weeks ago to have that discussion about whether we can play a game at St Mary’s. It is now the right time and resources are available to do that. We are looking at all that - whether we are talking about fans coming back in the stadiums, whether we are talking about neutral venues potentially, it’s all now on the table to have a discussion about. To work out what is right and safe at the right time.”
A neutral venue could conceivably be used on an emergency basis if there was a local spike in the coronavirus, or if the safety authorities had specific concerns about a fixture.
“The intention is really clear - to play all games home and away,” said Semmens. “If there is a particular safety police measure then a neutral venue is an acceptable outcome for us if it keeps people safe. There’s no debate about that. If it is equally safe let’s play home and away.”