Sunday 29 November 2020

Fans Can Return To Football Except In Reality Many of Them Can't - Far Fewer Clubs Will Be Allowed To Admit Spectators Now Than a Month Ago

UPDATE 10/12/2020: It has today been announced that even in tier 3 lockdown areas fans are now allowed into 'non elite' football grounds albeit at half the numbers allowed in tiers 1 and 2.

No doubt BBC/Sky/ITV News will be all over the supposed return of fans to football next weekend. 'Elite' clubs are now permitted to admit spectators again, albeit in very limited numbers, and the mainstream media will no doubt hail this as a success and interview fans saying how wonderful it is to be allowed back into their team's stadium. That's great, but unfortunately, it will completely ignore the fact that rule changes mean more teams in England are no longer allowed to admit fans than were just a month ago, before this latest four week lockdown brought 'non-elite' leagues to a halt. It will fail to showcase the stark realities for most clubs up and down the country which are far from celebratory like the news reports will show.

Some Background Information

When football clubs playing what is classed as 'non-elite sport' started their league campaign's in September they did so because they'd been told spectators were allowed back into their grounds. Clubs at step 3 of non-league football and below were allowed to admit 30% of their league minimum required ground capacity into their stadiums. Of course, this did not apply to 'elite' clubs where fans were still not allowed but for non-elite clubs, this change was welcomed with open arms.

Since these rules came into place I have attended numerous football matches in the region where I live, mostly at steps 5 and 6 where up to 300 fans were allowed into grounds. For a few better supported clubs this was problematic but for most, it meant a return to normality and a saving grace for clubs who in many cases were on the verge of financial ruin because of this pandemic. In the North East rising COVID figures saw the Durham and Northumberland Football Associations reduce by half the numbers of spectators allowed in grounds but for most of the country they carried on with original crowd allowances and things running in many cases rather smoothly. 

Football Suddenly Stopped

So above was the situation before, by no means perfect but invaluable for many. This situation completely changed, however, on 15 November when a countrywide lockdown in England saw all non-elite football suspended for four weeks. Many supporters, me included, were dismayed by this news and no doubt so were the clubs. There was, however, the belief that after four weeks things would return to as before and the football could easily restart as if nothing had happened. Alas, this was a little misplaced... 

Latest Update - Can Restart But Many No Longer Allowed To Admit Fans

New tiered restrictions that are to come into force on 2 December when this current lockdown ends state that clubs in the highest level tier three restrictions are not allowed to admit any spectators even at non-elite level. This will spell disaster for clubs up and down the country as unlike before half the country is now seemingly in tier three. Under the old tiered system before this latest lockdown, even in the areas with the toughest restrictions fans were still allowed at non-elite level so this new change came out of the blue and was unexpected by most. Another change sees clubhouses not allowed to open for clubs under tier 2 restrictions meaning even where clubs are allowed spectators another vital source of income has been shut down. The North East actually experienced this rule as part of the extra restrictions I mentioned earlier that were put in by the two local football associations. It's a nightmare.

Leagues Delaying Their Restarts: The Disastrous Effects These New Restrictions Are Already Having Before They've Even Came into Force

With fans not allowed, restarting league campaigns is not viable for many non-elite clubs as the income spectators provide is vital for paying bills and things like player wages. Albeit the players are of course part-time as this level they still get paid, in many cases per appearance so no competitive matches mean the clubs don't have to pay them. Another issue is that in some leagues half the clubs would be allowed supporters on their terraces whilst half would not - this would create an uneven playing field which would be grossly unfair. Because of this many leagues have cancelled or delayed the restart of their seasons. In steps 5 and 6, the Northern League and the North West Counties League are to name but a few who have decided against restarting next weekend whilst the step 3 and 4 leagues have yet to make a decision on their restarts. 

Going Forward

So there you have it, hundreds of football clubs up and down the country who have happily been playing in front of spectators since the end of August have now been told they can no longer play in front of their fans causing unthinkable damage for these clubs and chaos to their league campaigns. The question now is how do things proceed? Leagues will no doubt review the situation in the coming weeks and these leagues I guess can extend their seasons through next summer if necessary but the extent of the financial implications are harder to gauge. Regarding the financial side of things, one must ask about government funding. There was recently announced a winter survival package which will give £14m worth of funding via grants and loans to clubs between steps 3 and 6 but how this will all work has yet to be fully explained and the uncertainty does not help. This has helped put us in the current situation as a lack of financial clarity is part of the reason varying leagues feel they cannot resume as planned.

Please Spread The Word

Of course, all the headlines have been about the forthcoming return of fans to elite football and this is how the narrative will no doubt continue but as you have seen the reality is vastly different and needs to be brought to attention. Please share this article and bring the grave news of this plight to a wider audience. 

We are currently in a complete mess and It's difficult so see way out other than allowing spectators to return.

One Final Thought

One final point of note though. If clubs at the lowest level of elite football are allowed in some cases 2,000 spectators in at tier two then why are the tier two clubs in the divisions directly below, if they restart, still only allowed at most 600 fans in (that is the unchanged maximum allowed at step 3 as agreed in August)? Why for non-elite clubs the continuation of these number restrictions when the clubs above are allowed much higher numbers of spectators? Surely the largest non-league step three and below stadiums could easily accommodate close to 2,000 spectators as the elite teams can at step 2 and above? Just another example of how ridiculous this situation is.

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