The Government’s refusal to allow supporters back into grounds is just the latest in a long line of snubs for football fans.
When Newcastle United return to Premier League action against Manchester United at 3pm on 17 October, many of the 108 bars and pubs within half a mile of the Magpies’ home ground – the most of any football club in England’s top four divisions – will be filled with fans watching their team on TV.
But less than 10 minutes’ walk away, almost every single one of the St James’ Park’s 52,000 seats will remain empty, thanks to the continued coronavirus-caused ban on supporters in the stands at professional football matches.
If that seems illogical, how about this: as long as all the same hygiene, social-distancing, and track-and-trace protocols are observed, football clubs could technically open their bars and allow fans onto stadium concourses to watch the games on telly. In fact, some are hoping to do just that.
While it would be irresponsible to suggest that fans could be squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder again, jumping all over each other when goals go in, we’re frequently told that chances of transmitting coronavirus are much lower outside.
If indoor venues such as the O2 and Royal Albert Hall are being allowed to reopen, and Vue cinemas can even screen live games to make up for the lack of films being released, shouldn’t clubs be allowed to let a limited number of fans watch their teams in the open air?
Unfortunately, match-going supporters are used to being treated with contempt and suspicion.
Whether it’s moving matches to times that suit the TV channels but not the train timetable, being kettled after the final whistle while the home fans leave, or stone-faced police officers funnelling us onto public transport like cows in replica shirts, going to games often involves feeling like a second-class citizen.
Of course, there are larger concerns in the fight against coronavirus than whether football fans have something to do on a Saturday afternoon, but this isn’t just about those who pay their money to enter through the turnstiles.
While the 20 top-flight teams still managed to spend over £1billion in the most recent transfer window, clubs that exist outside of the Premier League’s absurdly inflated financial bubble rely on match day income to stay afloat.
Stewards, kiosk staff and even mascots have seen their jobs disappear as a result of games being played behind closed doors. After all, what use is a seven-foot dinosaur when there’s nobody in the stands to entertain at half-time? Before too long though, whole clubs could become extinct.
Unlike pubs and restaurants, which had to feel their way through reopening with all the new restrictions in place, football has already shown that it’s capable of staging games with reduced numbers.
Back in August I attended a pilot match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea. With only 2,500 fans in a stadium that holds just over 30,000, plus three-seat gaps left between each person, social distancing wasn’t an issue and no discernible increase in cases was detected in the area following the game. But apparently, that’s not the part that authorities are worried about.
According to a Football Association official, Boris Johnson’s Government is concerned about fans mixing before and after games on – you guessed it – public transport and in local pubs.
This is the same government that has implemented a seemingly arbitrary 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry, causing city centres, trains and buses to flood with people at the same time every night.
I won’t pretend that the train back to Brighton after the pilot game wasn’t slightly busier than I’d have liked, but the one I caught back to London the following day was far worse, particularly after it stopped at Gatwick Airport and filled with returning travellers.
The Seagulls’ out-of-town Amex stadium is also particularly reliant on public transport and only has one small station serving it – not all clubs rely on the infrastructure in quite the same way.
As with so many other things concerning its football culture – ticket prices, standing sections, alcohol consumption and ownership rules that prevent nefarious businessmen from turning clubs into their own personal cash machines – Germany seems to have the right approach to the problem.
At the end of September, Bundesliga clubs were allowed to start welcoming back up to 25% of their stadiums’ capacities, but only in areas where the infection rate remains below 35 per 100,000 people, with specific arrival times to prevent overcrowding outside the ground.
While current infection rates in the UK would rule out many fans returning to most Premier League grounds, this is a good blueprint going forward.
For now, we’ll have to settle for watching in the pub or cinema – apparently, we’ll be much safer there.
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