Enter At Your Own Risk: Football’s Crowds to Return… At Last
The Prime Minister will have been giving himself a little pat on the back over the last 24 hours or so. It’s so easy to side-step the small issue of refusing to fire a minister whose bullying was so bad that it broke the Ministerial Code. All you need is a little stardust. First he “saved Christmas” by confirming that he would be relaxing lockdown laws over the holiday period. Whether that’s wise, when we’re still in the grip of the second wave of this pandemic, is a question for another website. And then he brought the football back. “Crowds of up to 4,000 to be allowed back into matches”, crowed the headlines, and such is our level of desperation at the moment, that the prevailing attitude right now seems to be, “Well, at least something is better than nothing.”
It’s not much, though. What will be allowed depends upon what regional tier you’re in – and goodness, isn’t this all starting to sound post-apocalyptic now? – and so far as professional and semi-professional football are concerned, this means that regions in Tier One will be allowed a maximum of 4,000 supporters, or 50% of their stadium capacity, whichever is the lower. Regions in Tier Two will be allowed a maximum of 2,000 supporters, or 50% of their stadium capacity, whichever is the lower, and no supporters will be allowed at matches played at clubs in Tier Three.
This applies to “elite” level football, the National Leagues North & South, and above. What, though, of the rest of the non-league game? Well, it’ll surprise few to learn that the new regulations themselves aren’t as clear as they might be. They state that, “Spectators at non-elite sports will be able to attend events in line with Covid-secure guidance for each tier”, and with no reference made anywhere to even the restrictions that were in place prior to the second lockdown. The FA confirms that it will continue to update us all upon receiving further information from the government, but it appears that football from Step Three down will be able to continue in line with the current Guide to Safety At Sports Grounds (pdf) social distancing guidelines – it’s estimated that most clubs will be able to open at around 25-30% of their capacity, though there will be variations. It’s certainly an improvement on the previous mandatory attendance limits.
There are, however, questions upon questions that remain unanswered. Both the National League and EFL League One and Two clubs have already agreed packages, but when the clubs were deciding to agree them, what date were they planning, as a date when things would be back to normal? In other words, do these limitations put fresh pressures on clubs? The best that we can hope is that they accounted for the rest of the season rather than merely some indeterminate or overly optimistic point in the future, when agreeing all of this.
And then there are the logistics of it all, even for those clubs who are allowed to let fans in. The majority of Premier League and EFL clubs combined have average attendances of well above 4,000 – how will these very limited tickets be allocated? (Presumably there will be no sales to away supporters.) If a majority of southern clubs remained in Tier One or Two and a majority of northern clubs ended up in Tier Three, what can be done about the the disadvantage that northern clubs might be put at? Or will they just get told to button their lips and be grateful that there’s any football on in the first place? And why are 4,000 people in an 8,000 capacity stadium considered an equal safety risk to 4,000 people spread out around a 60,000 capacity stadium? Because that seems to fly in the face of what many of us understand about how this virus spreads.
So many questions and, as so frequently, with this government, so few answers.
But it’s a start, and although the guidelines could probably be more clearly written and there are many more serious criticisms of the way in which the government has handled sport during this pandemic, today’s announcement can only really be ultimately framed as a step in the right direction. Fans of clubs above the third tier of the non-league game have been unable to seem their teams play for nine months. To a casual observer, this may not seem like much, especially with matches being broadly available to be streamed. But going to the football is considerably more than merely watching a football match. It’s a ritual. It’s a social event. It’s an opportunity to cut out all the other shit in your life for a couple of hours and let go, to become part of something else instead. There are almost certainly thousands of fans living the length and breadth of the country who need this in a way that not everybody even understands.
There will be those of us who will remain nervous about attending matches, even with reduced attendances, before they’re vaccinated and hopefully protected against this horrible disease once and for all. That’s understandable. We’re all grown-ups, and can choose our risks accordingly. If you asked me to come down to one side or the other, I’d say that this all feels a little too soon, especially in conjunction with the lightening of lockdown rules around Christmas. The advice remains, proceed with care. It is to be hoped that this loosening doesn’t cause even more suffering, when we’ve all been through enough, throughout this wretched, wretched year.