Back to the Future

Wellington, Basin Reserve, banners, football flags, visiting supporters
Tourist offices! Spare a thought for what away fans will contribute to the local economy

A timetable is emerging for a return to something like the old routine, in the lower divisions at least.

The key dates are:
Week beginning 17 August: publication of EFL fixture lists (21 August has been specified in reports, but neither the week nor the particular day is confirmed)
Weekend of 12 September: first games of the 2020/21 season, behind closed doors
1 October: all being well, limited numbers of supporters in grounds.

The new season’s fixtures usually create a buzz of interest. Their publication breaks up the close season, the Gobi Desert of the football calendar; and it gives fans something to look forward to.
This year, however, the close season in Leagues 1 and 2 is already five months old and until we can get into grounds there is very little to look forward to.
So a letter from Rochdale chairman Andrew Kilpatrick to his club’s fans, published on the Rochdale website, is of much wider interest.
From 1 October onwards Rochdale anticipate being able to have 2,170 fans inside the Crown Oil Arena. That’s a little over 20% of the ground’s capacity. More to the point, perhaps, it’s almost 60% of the average home attendance last season. At any level it’s better than nothing, obviously.
The prospect of a return to the possibility of football tourism remains distant. Casual visiting fans are unlikely to be a priority while numbers are restricted.
But that’s a very short-sighted view. Local tourist offices should urge clubs to focus on fans who will contribute most to the local economy. Given that the home fans will be contributing anyway, that means giving priority to incomers.

Sitting room

sunderland, cardiff city, stadium of light, social distancing
Sunderland’s Stadium of Light: not always a problem maintaining a two-metre gap

No sooner has Project Restart got off the ground than attention turns to the next season – and the possibility of opening football grounds to supporters.

The FA chief executive Mark Bullingham was widely reported on Thursday as hoping that “some fans could start to return to stadiums” with the new season. His comment is necessarily cautious: ‘some’ fans, ‘start to return’, and no commitment to all stadia. But for supporters of many clubs, especially lower down the league structure, it will be enough.

Halifax Town, north stand, unused, social distancing
Halifax: ‘The North Stand provides a great view, however this stand is unused.’

At many grounds, social distancing even at two metres might already be possible with an average attendance: it would simply involve re-opening the sections of stands or, in some cases entire stands, that are routinely closed off. My favourite example of this practice is from National League Halifax Town, whose website promises: “The North Stand provides a great view, however this stand is unused.”

At one metre, an adjustment the Government might make for pubs where it wouldn’t for schools, many grounds would still look half-empty.

The problem will be getting people to and into the grounds, organising their movement within the grounds and, not least, providing facilities. At least from your sofa you can enjoy a beer with the match and not have to worry about bladder control.