Neil Humphreys: Project Restart has to be an exercise in humility
As Covid-19 and race protests dominate, football needs to avoid histrionics
The English Premier League finds itself in unchartered territory. It must be humble.
Ordinarily, English football and humility go together like Kyle Walker and a coronavirus lockdown. They are uneasy bedfellows.
The EPL does bombastic. The EPL is the world's greatest league, according to the EPL. There's no time for losers, or subtlety, inside the inflated bubble.
It's bigger. It's better. And it's back. Or at least, it will be if the second wave doesn't strike the British Isles with the same deadly magnitude as the first.
Thanks to the terms dictated in those expensive TV contracts, the EPL needs to be the centre of attention at a time when it should be anything but.
Currently, our TV screens are a dispiriting mix of pandemic graphs and protesters lying on their stomachs in America's angriest cities.
At some point, these harrowing images must morph into Sadio Mane losing a fullback or Sergio Aguero slipping one into the bottom corner.
The EPL has to make that transition sensitively and modestly or risk a PR disaster.
Let's not kid ourselves here. The six-week overdose of 92 EPL fixtures, supposedly stretching across every day of the week and in every available time-slot, primarily feeds the financial beast.
Whatever football's healing qualities may be, if the sums involved merely equalled the Scottish Premiership, then the EPL season would've been similarly cancelled.
But they do not. So a sterile cocoon has been hastily constructed around every EPL club to project an image of safety and responsibility.
In a jarring example of haves and have-nots, EPL clubs have already carried out more Covid-19 tests than the whole of the UK managed in the first fortnight of the outbreak.
The elitism at work was already awkward. Now it feels distinctly uncomfortable.
As statistics show that people from disadvantaged communities are more likely to die from Covid-19, EPL clubs release photos of happy footballers training.
As protesters drop a knee and demand racial equality, the EPL's privileged status seems a tad distasteful.
The EPL's giddy preparations looked out of place before. Since the killing of George Floyd, they belong in a parallel universe.
Project Restart can hardly be blamed for the global outrage following the death of an African-American any more than it's responsible for the lockdown apprehension in the UK.
But the EPL must now co-exist in a fragile, frightened environment that may not be quite as keen on multi-millionaires chasing a ball around an empty stadium, mostly to appease TV companies and billionaires in boardrooms.
Gary Lineker, a useful barometer for the general EPL mood, recently tweeted his excitement that football was coming back. He wasn't alone in his enthusiasm.
Now, he's tweeting almost exclusively about the Black Lives Matter protests. He isn't alone in his horror.
If a prominent pundit tweeted "it's coming back, football's coming back," today, he'd face criticism for being insensitive and selfish. Lineker tweeted those words a week ago.
That's how fast things are moving.
Training photos no longer resonate, unless they display the solemn image of Liverpool or Chelsea footballers taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter.
That's how fast things are moving.
In the meantime, the EPL must also reconcile with the inconvenient finds of a Daily Mirror survey, which revealed that fans are divided on football's return.
Among the 14,000 fans surveyed across England and Wales, 47.7 per cent were eager for the EPL to resume. But 48 per cent did not believe the season should continue. The rest were unsure.
Considering Project Restart's swift progress, 48 per cent is a remarkable figure. Or maybe it isn't. Those supporters also live in a country with one of the highest death tolls. A second wave concerns more people than a second chance to finish the season.
As the June 17 start date creeps closer, the crammed fixture list feels less like a morale boost and more like a commercial obligation that just needs to be done and dusted with minimal fuss.
The EPL has to acknowledge this and dress down for the occasion.
Like a celebrity shunning make-up for an empathetic Zoom clip, Project Restart is now an exercise in humility. No fireworks. No histrionics. Just get it done, quickly and quietly.
A pandemic and Floyd's killing have inadvertently conspired to highlight the inherent socio-economic differences that divide us. This is our new reality.
The last thing the EPL wants to do is detach itself from that new reality.