This week has seen Premier League players return to socially-distant training in larger groups, after clubs unanimously voted to resume training.  Although there is considerable work to be done regarding next steps, this is a step in the right direction for those wanting the season completed on the pitch.

However, a debate has arisen on whether or not players should be forced to train if they are not comfortable with doing so.  Troy Deeney, captain of Watford F.C., has said he will not return to training as he is fearful of putting his child (who has a history of breathing difficulties) at risk.  Fortunately his manager has said he would not insist on players reporting for training – but not all managers and clubs may take the same approach.

The legal relationship between players and clubs may be tested in the coming weeks as Project Restart is in full flow. The rights and obligations of players and clubs are essentially governed by an employment contract, whereby a player is paid for carrying out their services – such as training, playing and commercial obligations. The current climate is unprecedented and not straightforward to navigate.  The Premier League is adamant that the safety of players and staff is at the forefront, but what happens if a player still refuses to train? 

There is no case law dealing with a player’s refusal to play during a past pandemic, but what we do know is that if a player has genuine and reasonable safety concerns for not playing, but a club decides to fine or stop paying that player, a player is protected by legislation and clubs may be forced to pay hefty compensation.

Clubs also owe their players a duty of care, which includes providing a safe environment through health and safety law.  The first phase of mass testing of Premier League players saw results this week of 6 testing positive, out of 748 individuals.  This is 0.8% of those people tested being positive.  In comparison, the Bundesliga was at 0.5% when they resumed their season last weekend.

With regular testing, social distancing and health and safety protocols all forming part of Project Restart, it will be interesting to what extent the fears of players are allayed or even deemed as unreasonable.  If more players take the same stance as Deeney and clubs start to take action to the detriment of players, the relationship between clubs and players may well be strained.