‘Pausing’ the return of non-league supporters is a dangerous mistake

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A week ago, it was announced that the proposed return of supporters to clubs at steps one and two of the English non-league pyramid from 1st October was to be scrapped due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.

Steps three to six have been able to welcome spectators since August 31st, provided that social distancing and the group-of-six rule are observed, and that attendances do not exceed 30 per cent of grounds’ capacities. The same conditions were set to apply to the National League, National League North and National League South, and clubs at the lower levels are as of yet not subject to any restrictions.

Not only does this policy bear the inconsistency which has come to define the Government’s response to COVID-19, but its stated justification also leaves a lot to be desired.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, said the following:

“We were looking at a staged programme of more people returning – it wasn’t going to be the case that we were going to have stadiums thronged with fans.

“We’re looking at how we can, for the moment, pause that programme, but what we do want to do is to make sure that, as and when circumstances allow, we get more people back.

“The virus is less likely to spread outdoors than indoors but again it’s in the nature of major sporting events that there’s a lot of mingling.”

This policy bears the inconsistency which has come to define the Government’s response to COVID-19.

First and foremost, almost all grounds at steps one and two are not ‘stadiums’. Most comprise terraces for standing with some seated areas, and in the rare case where they are all-seater then attendances usually mean they are not sold out. This ensures that social distancing is easy to implement.

The non-closed off nature of areas set aside for away fans, moreover, means that one-way systems can be easily set up to minimise contact between different six-person groups. Other anti-COVID measures such as hand sanitiser and face coverings could be made compulsory, and bars, food stalls and clubhouses could be shut if necessary. (That last point would, of course contradict with existing regulations for hospitality venues, but clubs would be more than willing to sacrifice food and drink revenue, or perhaps increase ticket prices to cover the income lost as a result, to ensure supporters’ entry.)

In any case, the proposed 30 per cent of capacity rule means that grounds would be anything but ‘major sporting events’ ‘thronged with fans’ and thus more than capable of being made as COVID-secure as possible.

It therefore appears as if the Government has gone for the nuclear option without having a full appreciation for either the facts of the situation or the implications of such an ill-thought out decision for the clubs involved.

On average, 60 per cent of a National League club’s income is made on matchdays, whether that be through tickets, food and drink, raffles or programmes. That proportion only increases for clubs at lower levels of the pyramid.

The Government has gone for the nuclear option without having a full appreciation of the facts or implications.

The financial situation for these clubs’ is a far cry from that of the Premier League and Championship, where the annual value of cushy television deals and mammoth parachute payments dwarf what the average non-league outfit makes in a decade.

And don’t be fooled by inaccurate stereotypes about overweight strikers, hoof ball tactics and nutcase centre-halves; non-league is full of talent waiting to be unearthed. Five of the most recent England squad – Dean Henderson, Danny Ings, Tyrone Mings, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope – have played there, as have the likes of Jamie Vardy, Chris Smalling, Michail Antonio, Troy Deeney, Callum Wilson and Joe Hart.

It is therefore right that the upper echelons of English football be prepared to support their semi-professional kith and kin, but it is equally right that they should not have to do so. This is the Government’s mess, after all, and it is their responsibility to provide a support package which covers the revenue shortfalls created by an unnecessary, unintelligent and uninformed diktat.

Image: Bonnett via Creative Commons

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