News | July 21st, 2021
The Government announced last week that fans will return to football stadia from October and I understand that initially only season ticket holders/members will be allowed in. I have also been told that families of up to four people will be able to sit together and others must respect the accepted levels of social distancing. All non-allocated seats will be taped off. I estimate that the number of spectators allowed in will be equal to approximately one third of a club’s stadium capacity, and all must wear masks. Internal kiosk areas will be closed and access to toilets strictly controlled by stewards as will entry to and exit from the stadia.
The headlines on the back pages will say football as we know and love it is back, but it will be different to what we are used to. Generally, stadiums of ours are citadels of emotion and passion for the two teams. Argument and anger towards opposition players and match officials abound not to mention a generous sprinkling of cursing, pleading, hugging, shouting and swearing. The atmosphere will nevertheless be better than an empty stadium bedecked by cardboard cut outs.
Deep down we all know that all of this is necessary because the safety of fans is paramount, and the alternative was for the TV companies to ask for their billions back and for English football to be plunged into financial meltdown.
Project Restart last season worked as well as could be expected in the circumstances and still provoked moments that demonstrated why the Premier League and EFL is the best in the world and who knows but we could be about to see the arrival of Lionel Messi!
Too many matches last season looked like training games. Without fans, some players found it hard to motivate themselves. Fans can lift players and encourage and motivate them and that motivation was clearly missing in some of the matches I watched.
Football didn’t feel the same to me during lockdown. Water breaks, loads of substitutions, tactics boards, hysterical and noisy dug outs and cardboard cut outs. It felt unrecognisable at times to the game I love. I wonder what the atmosphere will be like when fans return in October and whether indeed lockdown has made fans re-adjust their life priorities. The balance of power between clubs and supporters may well have shifted during this time.
For a long time, fans have been taken advantage of through high ticket prices and overpriced merchandise. But the sight and the sounds of those empty stadiums has reminded us that fans are the very life blood of the national game. Without them the TV billions would disappear. Indeed, Sky and other broadcasters forced the Premier League to pay them a £330million rebate for the portion of last season played behind closed doors because the absence of the fans and the atmosphere they create affected the experience of the watching TV viewers negatively.
People are suffering and many are losing their jobs so now is the time for bold policies on pricing. My experience of initiatives like ‘football for a fiver’ was that it actually brought in more revenue. Fans may not rush to come back. Many will but many may no longer feel comfortable in stadiums with thousands of people. Others will have grown used to spending less money during lockdown. Some will have reassessed their priorities.
Football may be about to get a reality check and now is the time for football people with the vision to embrace and deliver change or the game we all love may suffer irreparable damage.
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