Aston Villa and Sheffield United restarted the Premier League on Wednesday after a 100-day hiatus caused by the coronavirus crisis with a strong statement of support for the worldwide protests against racism by kneeling once the whistle for kick-off had been blown.
All the players’ names on the back of their shirts were replaced with the words “Black Lives Matter” as the Premier League formally joined the international protest campaign sparked by the death of George Floyd in America.
The players, and referee Michael Oliver, took a knee at the opening whistle, following a moment’s silence before kick-off in memory of those who have died in the pandemic.
Aston Villa, Sheffield United players take a knee. SHAUN BOTTERILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
It was an unusual step from the governing body, which usually insists players refrain from overtly political statements but which has supported previous efforts to rid the game of racism. The match at a rainy Villa Park was also the first in Premier League history to be played without fans, and with strict health protocols in place.
“Both clubs hope that the act of `taking a knee’ will send a strong message of unity and amplify the many messages of support from Premier League players and the wider football family,” the two teams said in a statement published minutes after the act.
Players also took a knee before kick-off in the Premier League’s second match between Manchester City and Arsenal.
Only 300 personnel were allowed into a stadium divided into three security zones to try to restrict any possible spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed close to 42,000 lives in the United Kingdom.
There was none of the traditional routine at the start of a match, with teams emerging from their changing rooms separately, players lining up 2 metres apart and handshakes banned. The game also started without any ball boys.
Both teams will be allowed to make five substitutions, in another first for the game in England and following on from the allowances made by soccer’s world governing body FIFA for the leagues having to cram in matches after the lockdown. The match was the first of 92 to be played inside the next six weeks to finish the Premier League season
Villa manager Dean Smith’s father, who was a groundskeeper for the club, recently died of the coronavirus, and a lone groundskeeper jacket was laid out in front of the Holte End in tribute.