MARTIN SAMUEL: The return of fans next month is a baby step, but a step towards normality… and for some clubs in the lower leagues it might just be the lifeline they need to survive
You can’t sing, you can’t shout, you can’t have a beer, and in most of the country you probably can’t get in at all. But it’s a step. A baby step, sure, but a step towards normality.
And for some clubs it might even be the lifeline they need.
A League Two club in a Tier 1 area can welcome 4,000. In 2018-19, the last full season with crowds, that would have been above the average attendance at 10 of 24 clubs, and within 1,000 of the average attendance at a further eight. Even in League One it represents a sizeable gate for roughly half the division — maybe enough to get by without financial support.
A limited number of fans will be able to support their team inside grounds again in December
Fans haven’t been inside stadiums since the pandemic stopped sport in its tracks in March
Of course, the tiers are key. Few football clubs are out in the sticks. Most are in urban centres where restrictions are at their most oppressive and already Premier League clubs are saying such a small number of fans would cost more to process than they could possibly generate.
Yet this is not about them. Not for now. The elite division relies on television money for its survival — although not exclusively— but the lower leagues need footfall. Yet even if fans only return further down the pyramid at first, this is a positive development.
Most in the game were resigned to not seeing any type of crowd at matches until much later in the season, nearer spring. Now there is talk of a limited return in weeks. If football can prove it can handle this challenge, and with vaccine relief on the way, it may be that Premier League grounds, too, will begin to welcome supporters in more significant numbers. Manchester United certainly sounded optimistic on Monday, at least for public consumption.
The return of fans will come as a boost to clubs in League One and Two amid the pandemic
How much fun the experience will be is another matter.
Mask-wearing will be compulsory — and no doubt enforced — entrance and exit procedures could be lengthy and inconvenient. The ban on singing — as part of a code of conduct — may be harder to enforce, and shouting close to impossible. Being one of a small number may make abusive comments less likely, though, with greater chance of being heard and given the opportunity to discuss performance with the player personally; or perhaps with his brothers in the car park later.
Either way, it’s good news. Full houses, such as the one witnessed in the State of Origin rugby league match in Brisbane earlier this month, may be some way off. Yet we expected that. We didn’t expect this.
To the drowning men of the lower divisions, 4,000 will sound like the Maracana.
There has been a very eerie feel to proceedings at matches all across England without fans