The 2020-21 Premier League season was unlike any other. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the 2019-20 season to conclude in late July, teams had a little over six weeks to reboot, reset and regroup. From there, the grueling calendar took hold, with a compressed league schedule and cup competitions squeezed around international breaks filled with extra games.
Players and club staff would endure positive COVID-19 tests, periods of isolation, rescheduled games — Everton vs. Man City the most high-profile over the festive period — and almost an entire season without fans. ESPN talked to people around the Premier League to get their perspectives on how they navigated this most unique of campaigns and what they learned through the pandemic.
Reporting by Rob Dawson, Tom Hamilton, Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden and James Olley
The early stages of the campaign
With the pandemic forcing a three-month shutdown for the Premier League, teams had plenty of time to reflect and prepare for the eventual return to play. But the adjustments were difficult.
“Can we catch it from touching the corner flags?”
“This has been the most challenging season I’ve ever had to deal with. In terms of where we were at this time last year, we were in a bit of trouble, really in terms of being just above the relegation zone and not knowing whether the 2019-20 season [which paused for three months due to the pandemic] was going to continue. And the anxiety levels were high at the time when players were coming back in, because they were hearing about this virus that was highly contagious and [asking questions]… can we catch it from the football? Can we catch it from touching the corner flags or the goal posts?
Subsequently, the Premier League did an excellent job of putting protocols in place that helped to build confidence: cleaning the ball, cleaning the goal posts, cleaning the corner flag. Here at our Bush Green training facility, we have [those protocols], but obviously we had to make them more appropriate for us. We are probably one of the smaller Premier League training grounds, in all honesty, by footprint, but I think it’s made us more diligent. And so we’ve been doing the twice weekly swab tests/PCR tests, and we as medical staff have to wear all the PPE — masks, aprons, gloves — when we’re treating the players, whether in the treatment areas or around hotels when we’ve traveled. — Richard Collinge, West Ham’s Head of Medical Services
Smaller team talks “a big change we never quite got used to”
In the early days of the coronavirus, when the rules were at their strictest, there was frustration among the coaching staff at a top-half Premier League team that the squad had to be separated into smaller sections for team-talks because of rules preventing large groups gathering together.
“I’m sure it was the same for some other teams but we effectively had to give the same information three or four times because one big team-talk was ruled out,” said a source at that club. “Normally, you’d have unit meetings where the squad is split by position, but then we’d bring everyone together to give general instructions, motivate and the like. That was a big change we never quite got used to.”
Player bubbles don’t mix
The different bubbles throughout the pandemic have caused issues for Manchester United, particularly when manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has wanted to promote youngsters from the Under-23s into the first team or when first-team players have been asked to play for the U23s in order to get game time.
Earlier in the season, Solskjaer asked Brandon Williams and Marcos Rojo to play for the reserves at Leigh Sports Village to help build up their match fitness, but it ended up being a complicated process. As part of the first-team bubble, Williams and Rojo could not just mix with the U23s and then return to first-team training. They had to make their own way to Leigh and prepare in separate changing rooms. Manager Neil Wood was even forced to give separate team talks before kick-off and at half-time.
Ian Darke lists his best 11 players at each position in the English Premier League.
“We’ve given them bags of PPE and hand gel” for international breaks
We’ve found we had to be diligent and careful when players went away on international duty. We’ve given them bags of PPE and hand gel, so they continue following the protocols on the road with them.
I think the first break [of the 2020-21 season] was last September or October? That was a challenge. I think even the players were again asking us the same questions: hey Rich, is it safe to go away? How can I ensure it’s safe? So we reached out to each of the national team federations our players represent, we checked on their COVID policies and if there were any kind of discrepancies, and we tried to align those [with our practices]. We sent the players away with PPE, as I alluded to, and we did have some players who returned from national team camps with positive cases.
We were always trying to balance that risk. We don’t want to stop a player representing his country, but ultimately, we wanted to make sure they remained in good health and ready for the Premier League games. We have to find a balance there, and so we’ve started the same questions going into the European Championships. We want to make sure that all the federations are looking after our players as best as possible. — Collinge
Once the season started
With little time to regroup and reset after the 2019-20 season ended in late-July, the learning curve was steep.
“We made over 4,000 phone calls to supporters”
We had to get used to working remotely during the pandemic. We had to quickly adapt to working from home, with colleagues all around Sussex trying to provide the same excellent service to the clubs’ supporters while being away from colleagues and other departments!
There have been challenges in the past year, for everyone. As a community, family, and connected club, it was important that we stayed in contact with our supporters during a difficult time and therefore, as a club, we made over 4,000 phone calls to supporters to ensure they were safe, well and had everything they needed. Phone calls were made by staff, players, player legends, CEO, First Team Men’s Manager, First Team Women’s Manager as well as players from both first teams.
It has been difficult losing the fast access of communication with other colleagues on projects, but I feel we have adapted and overcome challenges and will now continue with remote methods, such as Zoom, to stay in regular contact with our supporters. I set up a “Zoom Coffee Morning” for our disabled supporters: a space to talk about football and feel safe, but also to see a different face! Lots of our disabled supporters were having to self-isolate due to falling into the “extremely clinically vulnerable” category, and therefore were seeing the same face everyday, and the same four walls, and that’s why I wanted to do more.
I found these calls also picked me up! It was giving me the excitement for fans returning, and how much I was looking forward to getting back to the “norm.” — Millie Crowhurst, Disabled Supporters’ Liaison Office, Brighton & Hove Albion
“It was an education process, and getting everyone to buy into it”
“We did an audit the prior season and learned we’d lost quite a lot of time due to illness. You know, stomach bugs, coughs and colds, and we actually maybe we tempted fate here, but we put hand sanitizer gel all around the training grounds. That’s one area that we thought we could improve on as a club, and I’m so glad that we did, because that enabled us to hit the ground running when it came to the coronavirus. So yes, we had some basic hand hygiene and we were looking at [player] nutrition as well.
It was an education process for players and staff, and getting everyone to buy into it. We had players coming in and saying look, is it safe to be here, should we be here? And then it was should we be playing games? Can we catch it from that player who has swept a hand that hits me in the face with their hand? Or when I head a ball and I have contact with that player? So I think over time, that confidence was built up.
We also had to maintain a clear dialogue with the players, with lots of meetings, and I think just when we thought we’d come through the worst of it, last Christmas we had another spike [in positive COVID-19 cases] — certainly in and around east London — and again, we had to educate the players about the right things to be doing around family members at a key time in the year, where everyone wanted to be together and to celebrate, but it’s obviously a very busy time in the footballing calendar. We had to try and find a way to mitigate the risk to make it safe for everybody, and to keep this training ground open, and to keep us playing and performing in the Premier League.
It’s been a bit of a haze at times, and the timeline kind of blurs a little bit, but yeah, it’s been a fascinating learning curve for all of us. — Collinge
“Mentally, it’s been tough for the players”
I found many of my players were, at times, hard to motivate because of the peculiar context of the season. When they play a big game, in the Champions League or in the Premier League, no problem. But against smaller teams or the third game in a week, for example, I could feel when speaking to them just before the game that they were not as up for it as they should have been or would have been before.
They knew that it would be silent: no atmosphere, not much intensity. They knew that they would hear their manager in their ears all the time, which does their head in, trust me. And I think it was harder at times to get into the routine of the matchday. They play for the fans mostly and without them, unconsciously, it was hard. I could feel lethargy creeping up throughout the season.
Mentally, it has been tough for players. They never complain, because they know how privileged they are, but it was such a strange season that they struggled at times. I arranged for one of my players who wanted to speak to a psychologist to help them mentally. But the best remedy was the fans’ return. My guys were so excited just to have 8 000 fans back. It was like they were different players than they had been a month before! — A high-profile agent with several players in the Premier League
Ian Darke lists his worst 11 players in the English Premier League.
“Summer signings are going to be made on the basis of watching players on video”
“Scouting has been so difficult this season, especially watching potential targets from overseas. Domestically, it’s been tough because of the limits on people attending matches. We haven’t been able to just turn up at games and sit in the directors’ box as we would usually do, so a lot of it has been done on a laptop.
“I remember watching Bosnia vs. Netherlands on a laptop in my local coffee shop last October because we couldn’t travel to the game. I was scouting potential targets, but it’s not the same doing it on a computer screen. You don’t see what happens off the ball, can’t gauge a player’s work rate when not in possession: these are all things you go to a game to see.
“It’s been the same for scouts at all clubs. Summer signings are going to be made on the basis of a year of watching players on video, so there could be some bigger gambles than usual during this window.” — Scout for a Premier League club
“That amazing moment of sharing a goal with your fans has been robbed”
“What I found so strange and different this season, but never thought it would be, was after scoring a goal.
Usually, you score and before your teammates join you to celebrate, you have a moment with the fans. If you are playing at home, you go towards them — you see them happy, celebrating, screaming of joy, smiling. If you are away from home, you try to go towards where your [team’s] fans are, if you can, to share that moment with them. This season and the second half of last season, you can’t do it. You feel a bit lost and a bit as if that amazing moment of sharing a goal with your fans has been robbed. It is not there anymore.
It’s still great to score, of course, especially big goals. But its has been a different feeling. And it must be the same for the fans. We felt when they were back at Stamford Bridge, for the Leicester game, that the atmosphere was even more amazing than before.
When you don’t have something for a while and you get it back, you are so happy that you give even more! Having fans back and fans having football at stadiums back has done that. But it was a long time waiting for them.” — Olivier Giroud, Chelsea and France striker
How the season concluded
Despite a handful of postponed/rescheduled games along the way, the 2020-21 season ended on time and the final weeks offered a chance for executives and staff to reflect on the lessons learned.
“I did fear we might have another break”
The only time I felt the season was in danger was around that Christmas period, when we were making postponements. The new variant came in across the country and it started impacting our testing numbers quite significantly. If you recall, we went back to twice-a-week testing and doubled down on the protocols. We closed canteens (at clubs), which was very unpopular, but it sort of went as swiftly as it came and lockdown seemed to have an impact on it. There was this huge curve and the process of doing those postponements and rescheduling matches was actually very difficult.
At that point, I did fear that we might have to have a break, although we were obviously trying to avoid it. But that went away within about 5-6 weeks and since then, everything’s been very steady. The clubs have been amazing in terms of supporting the protocols and behaving properly.
As for the season generally, it is hard to assess, it really is. Maybe if we get a day off, we might be able to sit back and think about it, but I think the time to reflect on it will be in the summer, when we can look back and see what lessons can be learned because, even through the adversity that everyone has experienced — including asking clubs to play this truncated season, all the fixture pile-up issues, the stress and strain on players — have been very difficult to deal with.
In the end, everybody has stepped forward and stepped up and made in happen. — Richard Masters, Premier League CEO
“The next phase is players asking where can they go on holiday”
I think for the players, getting used to flying into games and traveling on the team coach, being in often empty hotels and empty airport terminals, was really unusual. Certainly, these last few days — we were at West Bromwich [for the May 19 game], and having fans in the stadium was really lovely again. It was nice to hear some natural crowd noise, as we’ve generally been used to hearing the players shouting, which is an experience in its own right.
It’s been a really unusual year. The next phase is our players asking where can they go on holiday? The Traffic Light system [devised by the UK government] seems to be creating more confusion than not. But the guys are diligent, they know they’ve got to do their tests, they know they’ve got to go to the places that are obviously “Green Zone” and as we’re learning, the zone system is creating an awful lot of uncertainty and so we try to educate the players for the next phase of allowing them to have a break because in all honestly, they need a break. We also need to think about the guys that are going away to the Euros, and the challenges they’ll face on a physical and psychological level. — Collinge
“It has given fans the belief that we are there to support them”
I’m surprised at how well the club has coped during this time, but also amazed at the generosity of fans during lockdown. There was an opportunity for supporters to donate their 2019/20 [season ticket] refund back to the club or charity (Albion In The Community, or AITC) to help financially: the response to this was unbelievable.
I’m also surprised at how keen supporters are to come back! I personally thought the community would be worried about mass gatherings; however, I believe the club has offered so much clarity and transparency throughout the pandemic, it has given the fans the belief that we are there to support them, but that we will also ensure the stadium is as safe as possible.
[After Brighton fans were back to watch the 3-2 win vs. Man City on May 18] To see the fans in the stadium, following the social distancing rules and wearing their masks, but singing louder than I have heard before, was something I don’t think I will ever forget! We of course held pilot events with 2,000 supporters, but the extra 6,000 on Tuesday made it feel like we had 30,000 as normal!
I am so looking forward to the day that we do have full capacity; I will bring a tear to the eye. — Crowhurst