It sounds like something from a science fiction film yet this might be reality in just a few weeks. The Premier League ‘bubble’ could be turned into an actual situation as teams look for a way to play out the season.
Since the coronavirus crisis hit, the notion of moving the entire division to a neutral area of England and playing the season out at a number of venues has been mooted. Quarantine might become the norm for Premier League stars.
Names have been mentioned. Wembley, for one, has been offered up, while the vague notion of sticking it all in the Midlands has been broached before. The most intriguing, though, might be another option the FA have pitched.
The main pitch at St. George’s Park – could this be used as a neutral venue this season?
The Premier League are looking at ways to restart the campaign amid the coronavirus crisis
Since opening in 2012, St. George’s Park has been the home for all 27 of England’s teams and must rank as one of the most well-equipped facilities in the country.
It is a location that a number of top flight players will be used to and yet is not tied to a single club. Unlike even League Two grounds, no one in the division has played competitive matches there. Wembley does not have that to its name, given Spurs’ temporary occupation of the national stadium.
The training base would truly be a level-playing field – and they have plenty of those handy too.
Looking at the basic specifications of St. George’s Park, it is easy to see where the appeal comes from.
The view from one of the dugouts at the training pitch at St. George’s Park in Burton
There’s a quality playing surface in the form of the Sir Bobby Charlton Pitch, which has been designed to be an exact replica of Wembley’s surface. That is a level of quality demanded by the modern game.
Every game could be played there – a pitch with dugouts and enough seating capacity in the solitary stand to house the staff Premier League clubs require in 2020.
There would also be a further 12 pitches available for training sessions while the main action is being played out. Hypothetically, Manchester City could finally face Arsenal while the majority of the other Premier League teams carry out their own sessions in anticipation of their own matches.
Inside, there is also a further full-size indoor 3G pitch, useable whatever the weather.
There are 13 pitches available to be used at the training facility in the Midlands
Teams needing to deal with injured players would also find the required facilities. There’s a suite of rehabilitation and sports science areas which could be used to work with those coming back to fitness.
And when it comes to housing players, there is an impressive Hilton hotel on the site. That includes a pool of its own and a gym suite, which would be a good way of keeping footballers busy.
There are also 14 meeting rooms at the hotel, enough for any tactical masterclasses that need to be delivered.
It is also worth noting that 40 per cent of the UK’s population live within a two-hour drive of St. George’s Park, which is 16 minutes from Burton-upon-Trent.
There is also a full-sized indoor 3G pitch that could be used in training sessions
There are also three local airports – East Midlands, Birmingham and Coventry – for anyone travelling into the UK, although that should not be much of an issue.
All of which seems to suggest that this might be as good a location as any available. Wembley would have the problem of being in north London, which would be much more difficult to quarantine.
Any other ground could be viewed as biasing the games, while not many venues will have as many hotel space in the immediate vicinity.
Testing and then quarantining players on arrival at a remote location like St. George’s Park does seem to make sense at an initial glance.
There is also a Hilton hotel on the site of St. George’s Park, which could accommodate players
There are, however some issues.
The remote location does mean that teams will essentially have to rely on the facilities there and in Burton. Should a manager want to find private pitches to train on, his team will have to go into a market town to find it.
That would be simple enough for one, but if all 20 wanted that it might become an issue of availability.
The Hilton would also not be able to accommodate everyone. It has 228 bedrooms, not enough if every team brought a 25-man squad of players and support staff.
There are 228 bedrooms within the Hilton hotel, which could come as a precious tool
There are plenty of other hotels nearby, not least in Burton itself, but there would be questions over fairness if one team stayed so close to their pitch and others had to travel over.
Most important to the conversation, though, is the complete lack of broadcast facilities at St. George’s Park.
As Gary Neville hinted earlier: ‘I think if it was a non-economic decision there would be no football for months.’
The drive for ‘Project Restart’ is the devastating financial impact of no football in the coming months. That, in the main, is due to the huge television package the Premier League has negotiated with broadcasters around the world.
There is also a fully equipped fitness suite in the hotel and rehabilitation facilities
A potential bill could be worth as much as £762million to the top flight, so broadcasting games from behind closed doors is the absolute priority.
Holding them somewhere where there are no facilities to do so immediately jumps out as a possible problem.
Not only that, but as anyone who has watched non-League action on television will tell you, football tends to look as good as it does on the screen because of the location where the main cameras are.
They need to be on a relatively raised platform. A building project would have to take place to put those cameras above the current stand.
A significant issue would be the lack of broadcasting facilities at the training complex
Given the importance of broadcasters to restarting the game, that could be a problem
That is even before they put in the capacity to broadcast the Premier League around the globe.
There are problems wherever the Premier League decides to play out the season. This includes questions over home advantage, sporting integrity and how to keep everyone safe from a coronavirus outbreak.
St. George’s Park does, on the surface, seem like a reasonable option. It could be the ideal location for the Premier League bubble.
Yet it is worth paying attention to those nagging questions. They’re enough to make the bubble burst.