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One year on, Premier League upbeat on recovery

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters talks about the challenges of the past year and looks ahead with optimism 365 days after the league ground to a halt due to COVID-19.

March 13, 2020: the Premier League was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]

One year on, so much has changed and the Premier League is now upbeat and looking forward to the return of sizeable crowds this season and full stadiums to kick off next season.

That is the hope, as the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues to accelerate in the UK as June 21 is touted as the date things can return to a strong semblance of normality.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters reflected on what has easily been the most problematic 12 months in league history, as the league was kept going aside from a three-month pause from March to June, 2020.

“It’s been a hell of a journey. All that uncertainty, as you put it, the huge challenges we’ve faced, the financial difficulties as well. Pretty much the whole nation has faced that combination of challenge, and football has been no different,” Masters said.

“It’s a year since we suspended the League. We had to get the 2019/20 League season finished. That felt like more of a sprint, and this season has been a long haul, getting to this point. We can see the end of the season on the horizon; we’re really looking forward to that moment, hopefully with the fans back in stadiums. It has been an incredible journey, but I think we can look back with some pride and say that we’ve made a big contribution.”

The last 12 months have been historic in so many ways.

English soccer being suspended for the longest time since World War two is something which will go down in history, and is something many will want to forget and get away from as soon as possible.

Fans not being at games has hit the whole soccer and sports world hard. It has arguably hit the Premier League harder that most league given the incredible atmospheres created at stadiums, with just 2,000 fans allowed to attend here and there in December.

The COVID-19 recovery plan is now well underway in the UK, and within the Premier League, as this one year anniversary also marks better times on the horizon.

“The vaccination programme is the light at the end of the tunnel,” Masters said. “It’s the thing which changes everything, from being controlled by the virus to controlling the virus and returning to some semblance of normality. If the vaccination programme works, in the way that government wants it to work, that will bring the return of full Premier League stadiums and theatres and cinemas and ticketed events generally.”

Timeline of last 12 months in the Premier League

One year ago today, everything changed.

Masters revealed that the Premier League planned to go on with the season but positive cases at Arsenal (Mikel Arteta) and Chelsea (Callum Hudson-Odoi) hit home the severity of the situation and on March 13, 2020 the league was suspended, initially until April.

When would games return? Would games return? Would the season be cancelled? Would Liverpool win the league? Would there be relegation?

The first few weeks without Premier League games threw up so many questions and clubs and the league worked together to find solutions as fast as they could. At times it seemed unlikely games would return at all, but they did, and all of that uncertainty seems a long time ago now.

Finances have taken a huge hit in the last 12 months, with clubs losing close to $2.8 billion. But the show has gone on and it has been a relief for so many they can at least watch the Premier League throughout the pain, worry and fear of the last year.

It is work looking back at the timeline of the last 12 months:

March 13, 2020: Premier League season suspended
April 29, 2020: ‘Project Restart’ plan announced
May 19, 2020: Players returned to group training
May 28, 2020: Clubs and league agree season will restart
June 17, 2020: Premier League restart 2019-20 season
July 26, 2020: 2019-20 season ends
September 12, 2020: Premier League 2020-21 season begins
December 1, 2020: First PL game postponed due to COVID-19
December 2, 2020: 2,000 fans now allowed at some PL stadiums
January 4, 2021: National lockdown, PL continues with no fans
March 13, 2021: One year since Premier League suspended

“Project Restart felt like a sprint. We played a lot of matches in a five-week period after a long lay-off. It was a challenge. This feels more like a marathon. The schedule that we’ve put in front of the clubs and the players is pretty brutal; they’re playing a full Premier League fixture list, European competitions, two cup competitions as well, all in a truncated period. It’s a big challenge,” Masters said.

“There’s been really strong adherence to all the protocols, and I think it’s been a huge collective collaborative effort on behalf of the Premier League and the clubs and the players and everyone involved, to get to this point. It hasn’t always been easy, there have been bumps in the road that we’ve had to navigate.”

Masters revealed how close the Premier League was to shutting down around the turn of the year as the UK variant of COVID-19 saw cases and deaths surge across the country.

“We had a big spike in late December and early January. We had those postponements, making difficult decisions about postponing matches and rescheduling fixtures but we also doubled down on testing and really tightened the protocols and asked the clubs to go the extra mile. They did all of that, and six weeks on, we’re back at two positives per week out of 3,000 tests and so everything feels in a very different place,” Masters said.

“Back then, there were concerns that there might have to be some sort of hiatus, or that we weren’t matching the mood, but I think that a lot of the work that we did with the clubs and the players about refraining from hugging, about improving their behaviour, about re emphasising what a privilege it is to play football, I think helped. I don’t think it was near, but it was perhaps the nearest we’ve come to it.”

Next step: Full Premier League stadiums for start of next season

One year on from the shutdown, the Premier League and its clubs are in a positive frame of mind.

Masters hopes fans can return in big numbers in May for the final two matchweeks of this season, while the start of the 2021-22 season will see fans back in full stadiums.

“The Government’s roadmap is really welcome because it sets out a plan for a return of supporters, so hopefully the final two fixtures of our season will have up to 10,000 supporters in them all. We’ve got to go past those first initial steps in the Government’s roadmap to get there, so hopefully that will be a fantastic finale to the end of our season,” Masters said.

“From the beginning of next season onwards, our goal is to have full stadia and obviously the Government’s roadmap offers us that opportunity. There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before that can happen but that’s our ultimate goal. The return of full vibrant Premier League stadia and a return to the normal Premier League.”

The Premier League has kept going throughout the hell and uncertainty of the last 12 months, and it is now on the final path towards a full recovery.

Follow @JPW_NBCSports