Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
At the time of writing, I haven’t stepped foot inside a football stadium to watch a game in seven months.
Since then, very few fans have been lucky enough to do so.
Several pilot events took place over the summer, with an optimistic view to professional football clubs allowing fans back in to stadia, with social distancing and COVID-secure measures, from October 1st.
Alas, October has been and gone and, for most of the UK, football matches – alongside games in other sports – are not going ahead with fans.
No-one expects to see packed-out stands for a long time, in a similar way to the fact that we don’t expect to see a nightclub packed full of tipsy-at-best students. However, nightclubs have been allowed to reopen with COVID-secure measures, operating as bars instead (nightclubs are banned, bars are not – depending on where you live and which ‘tier’ restriction you find yourself in). So why is sport being left behind?
Anger was felt across the country on 26th October when it was confirmed that FA Cup 1st Round Proper ties, taking place on the weekend of the 6th-9th November, would not go ahead with crowds. This is despite games for many of the clubs already taking place with fans (because some non-league ties have been allowed to be played with fans if social distancing and COVID-secure practices can take place).
Confused? As am I.
Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. Firstly, let me put a disclaimer out there – I am not, and will never be, a Manchester United fan. However, their stadium is the largest club football stadium in the UK, with capacity for 75,731 spectators. Of course, not every seat can be filled and you may elect to leave a row between each spectator. You will still get several thousand people into a football stadium, with social distancing taking place. Indeed, United confirmed that they have adapted the stadium to accommodate for 23,500 fans.
Problems may arise with entry points – that is understood. Could clubs – and I am sure this has been pitched to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for DCMS – not stagger entry, just like they are doing in some schools? Call me crazy, but that is surely a strategy that fans, clubs and broadcasters would be happy with.
Manchester United, amongst other large clubs, will survive this pandemic. I, and other writers for Wessex Scene, have already written of the detrimental consequences of losing crowds for clubs lower down the leagues. Macclesfield Town, who already had financial issues before the COVID-19 pandemic led to football grounds being shut down, had all staff on furlough and were still eventually wound up, no longer competing in the 5th tier.
Southend United chairman Ron Martin mentioned in a statement that the EFL support package may come “too late for some clubs”, with the 67-year-old also questioning, “with £1.5 billion going to Arts, Culture & Heritage one could be forgiven for asking how does that exclude football”.
The destruction of some of the oldest clubs in England due to finances was seen before COVID – Bury and Macclesfield are the most recent ‘big names’. Now, more than ever, clubs are reliant on money wherever they can get it.
Allowing fans back in to stadia in a COVID-secure way, in areas of Tier 1 restrictions at least (and, technically Tier 2 as the restrictions allow for outdoors mixing at the time of writing), is a valuable way of ensuring clubs with no fans and dwindling bank balances can keep themselves afloat. Of course, with the new lockdown restrictions in England, this isn’t possible until at least December 2.
Yet the government do not allow this to happen. Instead, they leave clubs desperate for other ways to make money.
Whilst EFL Chairman Rick Parry said in September that he was “encouraged that the government has recognised the need for urgent financial assistance for sport and discussions will continue with DCMS and the Premier League”, as yet it appears very little financial support has been agreed.
Should the government fund football clubs? If they are not allowing fans in, yes. If they are providing over £1bn to the Arts, to Culture, to Heritage then why are lower-league – and even Premier League – clubs not benefitting from similar financial support?
Football – and sports more widely – contribute to all three of those categories (art, depending on who you talk to and who they support; culture – I don’t think I need to remind people of scenes in the 2018 World Cup with packed out bars up and down the country, and heritage – lots of these clubs carry a wealth of history).
The government must step up and make a proper decision, or risk losing swathes of sports clubs around the country.
Either back sport financially – and much better than anything that has already been done for the industry – or let fans in.