As much as we have all tried to make the best of it, consoling ourselves that we are at least able to get our football fix after so long away, even if it is on TV with the only atmosphere the piped-in crowd noise that at best makes it sound like something approaching the real thing; we are all desperate to know when we might be able to get back to actually going to watch football again.
Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted (hoped?) that spectators could be able to return to stadiums from October, stating: “We will pilot larger gatherings in venues like sports stadiums with a view to a wider reopening in the autumn.” Even if we believe him, and assuming there isn’t a second spike in the virus as many scientists seem to think there is likely to be as the weather turns colder, will it be anything like we remember it?
First and foremost is the question of how many of us are likely to be allowed in at anyone time? Various assessments have been put forward but it seems likely that the starting point might be that grounds are allowed to fill up to a third of their capacity. On the face of it that could mean one in every three seats being allowed to be utilised, but that doesn’t factor in households that have seats together and the knock-on effect of how tickets are allocated and for which matches, knowing my luck I will somehow miss out on all the high-profile ones!
If we follow that train of thought through that would mean one-third of home League matches, for Premier League clubs that is just over six matches assuming that season ticket holders make up the majority of the crowd. In the lower leagues it may be slightly more given that matches don’t always sell out and there is usually spare capacity. Given the likely restricted attendances, it would seem nigh on impossible that clubs will be able to sell season tickets at pre-pandemic prices and would have to offer significant discounts, not necessarily a bad thing for those of us used to be being fleeced for our regular attendance at the Emirates of course, but a huge hit to all clubs’ revenue.
Of course, anyone being allocated a ticket then faces the challenge of how they are going to get to the match. For anyone used to using public transport in the past that may act as a further disincentive given the government have been telling us to avoid it if at all possible for the last four months. Anyone choosing to drive will face the challenge of where to park especially in London and other inner-city grounds. There is also the concern that our pre-match routines will be altered, for Mrs Football Nerd and I we wonder if we will have to, or even be able to, book a table in our favourite Leyton Star and whether we will be able to get our traditional chips in beer cheese sauce!
Once you get to the match you are very likely to be allocated a staggered entry time to endeavour to avoid crowding at the turnstiles and will no doubt have to have your temperature taken. The refreshment kiosks, bars and everything else that contribute to the matchday experience are likely to be closed and you will most likely have to go and take up your seat for the duration to avoid the “brush past” effect of passing people on the concourse, all of this while wearing a suitable face covering in all likelihood.
While you will be able to watch the actual match it is being suggested that the toilets will be closed at half-time to avoid congestion thereby forcing fans to go during the match, an absolute faux-pas for the traditionalist supporter. Of course it is highly unlikely that the refreshment stalls would be allowed to open at the break and although it has been mooted that fans might be allowed to drink alcohol in their seats for the first time in England in 35 years, that would seem counter-productive to avoiding crowding in communal areas. Unless of course we are in for US-style hawkers moving throughout the ground to sell us what we want.
Assuming you can, or even want to endure all that, you won’t be able to socialise with your matchday mates and associates, as even if they are ‘lucky enough’ to be able to get a ticket for the same match they are likely to be so far away from you that you may have to resort to messaging them on your phone. Equally how would social distancing be policed if fans are tempted to go and sit near people they know? Will it be down to the stewards, the police or will we all be expected to apply our common sense as we have in the majority of situations (hello Mr Cummings!) throughout the lockdown?
All of these measures, and no doubt many more, will need to be thought through in great detail with effective solutions and procedures put in place, with the onus no doubt on the clubs themselves to sort things out for themselves just as workplaces, pubs, restaurants, hotels etc etc have been expected to in the lack of any firm government guidance.
Beyond the likely very different fan experience, the clubs themselves will have to adapt their budgeting and financial planning for vastly reduced incomes, many clubs throughout the leagues were in barely sustainable positions with seemingly ‘guaranteed’ revenue streams, if these are much decreased many clubs simply won’t be able to survive. A sobering and very worrying thought for all of us who genuinely love the game.
Even if it does prove possible for us to get back to some semblance of regular football attendance what then happens if there is a second wave of the virus if not in the autumn, from the early part of next year? Will we simply have to shut it all down again and repeat what we have all been going through since March once again?
The impact of Coronavirus on the life of a football obsessive is actually likely to be bigger than we thought, in my more pessimistic moments I find myself reflecting that it may never get back to what it used to be. I also wonder whether if/ when I get the chance to go back to watch a match I might not want to given the rigmarole that it will involve; but then again I know deep in my heart that I won’t be able to resist even if it involves walking to the Emirates or Brisbane Road and enduring all of the necessary health and safety controls. What is it about football that means we will put up with all sorts of inconvenience just to do what we have always done?