Players 'take the knee' as Premier League football returns

17 June 2020, 18:03

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Players and match officials 'took the knee' as Premier League football returned to people's screens for the first time in exactly 100 days.

After three excruciating months without British sport on our TVs, English football's top-flight finally returned this evening with two mouth-watering encounters: Aston Villa vs Sheffield United and Manchester City vs Arsenal.

The first, broadcast live from Villa Park, saw the relegation-threatened Villans taking on the Blades - who are surprise contenders for Champions League qualification - in front a stadium that was empty because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the long wait for the return of Premier League football, the match ended goalless following a controversy involving an apparent failure in goal-line technology, which saved the blushes of Villa keeper Ørjan Nyland.

Prior to the game, fans were asked to send in their flags so they could be put on display around the ground, while big screens in the corners of the stands showed images of would-be ticket holders watching live from their homes.

All 92 of the remaining game will be broadcast live on TV.

Moments before kick-off, all players and the referee took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Read more: Premier League football returns to screens on 17 June

The first fixture was played out between Aston Villa and Sheffield United
The first fixture was played out between Aston Villa and Sheffield United. Picture: Aston Villa
All players and the match officials took the knee prior to kick-off
All players and the match officials took the knee prior to kick-off. Picture: Getty
Aston Villa fans were asked to send in their flags for display in Villa Park
Aston Villa fans were asked to send in their flags for display in Villa Park. Picture: Aston Villa

The second game, to be played at the Etihad Stadium, will see Pep Guardiola's Manchester City side, who still have a slim chance of retaining the title, taking on Arsenal, whose manage Mikel Arteta tested positive for Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic.

Liverpool, chasing their first top-flight title in 30 years, currently sit 25 points clear at the top of the table and could be crowned champions by the end of the week if City lose tonight and they win the Merseyside derby this weekend.

New measures have been introduced in order for games to get the green light, including being played behind closed doors.

Other measures put in place include testing players and staff twice a week, dividing stadiums into zones, allowing five substitutions during games (and naming nine substitutes instead of seven on the bench), no handshakes before kick-off, and disinfected balls, flags and goalposts.

A minute's silence was held at the start of the first game to remember those who have lost their lives to Covid-19 and will be held for all remaining fixtures for the first round back.

Meanwhile, all players will have the words 'Black Lives Matter' on the back of their shirts in place of their names to commemorate the death of George Floyd in the US which has sparked mass protests worldwide.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, speaking at the government's daily coronavirus briefing, hailed the return of the Premier League as a "hugely symbolic moment" in the coronavirus recovery.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference: "In just under one hour's time, the best league in the world will be back up and running after a 100-day pause.

"All but five countries will be airing tonight's games - underlining football's global reach and the soft power of UK sport.

"The Premier League is returning and the world will be watching.

"Of course it will be a very different event to what we're used to, but there's no doubt that this is a hugely symbolic moment.

"An important step forward in our careful journey back towards normality."