By James Reid
The football community came together in a rare show of unity last Tuesday to pile further pressure on the government around its current Covid-19 restrictions.
A petition calling for the return of football fans to stadiums has amassed over 195,00 signatures in 12 hours, meaning it will be considered for debate in parliament.
Support for the petition came from clubs at all levels, including Manchester United, while others involved in the football industry such as owners, journalists and fan groups also voiced their support.
The calls come amid the recent postponement of plans that would’ve seen a gradual and limited return of fans to stadiums from October. Trial runs had already taken place at several grounds, but the recent rise in cases has seen these plans shelved.
There has been anger, too, at the apparent contradictions within government advice that allows people to attend indoor theatre events at around half capacity while attendance at outdoor sporting events remains banned. Just last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged people to go to the cinema in response to news that Cineworld was closing its venues.
Much like the arts and entertainment industries, professional sport has been struggling with the financial impact of the pandemic. While headlines are often filled with news of the obscene wealth of the Premier League, further down cash is nearly always tight if not non-existent.
Most clubs have already used up most of their room for manoeuvre during the initial lockdown phase that saw the curtailment of lower-league seasons. Those with solid finances are now slightly more precarious and those with precarious finances, of which there are many in English football, are now living on a knife-edge.
Unlike the Premier League, lower league football is heavily reliant on people paying to physically attend matches. There are few, if any, TV deals that offer small amounts of money compared to the riches of the top division. Sponsorship tends to come from local business instead of global corporations. Wages are in the hundreds and thousands per week rather than hundreds of thousands.
Yet, unlike the theatre or the cinema, professional football, and sport in general, is seemingly being ignored by the government at present. Just like those other industries, without intervention people will lose their jobs at clubs up and down the country.
Not only will people lose their jobs, but communities may lose their clubs. Sports clubs, and football clubs in particular, are far more than just businesses. They are, in many cases, pillars of the community.
They have been there often for over 100 years and are woven into the identity of a place and its people. Clubs also embark on community projects in local schools or with the elderly. During lockdown, my own team Stevenage delivered sandwiches to elderly residents as one of a number of schemes launched by football clubs in response to the pandemic.
Once these clubs go, they will likely not come back. Of course, clubs have gone bust before and have risen again. But what might happen should clubs disappear en masse?
Clubs at the top are attractive investments and have global appeal – there will always be a means to bail them out if necessary. However, this is not the case lower down. In the past year or so, Bury, and most recently Macclesfield Town, have gone bust.
Of course, it is important to remember that there is still a pandemic going on. The return of fans to stadiums is rightly not at the top of the priority list. However, there is understandable bemusement at the double standards currently employed by the government.
Currently, fans can attend lower league football matches at capacities limited at either 150 or 300. This would all be outside, perhaps a roof to shelter from the wet weather, with plenty of space to keep distance. Even then, in the North East guidance advises against any attendance at all. That is the limit to the provision for football fans.
In comparison, attendance at the theatre and other indoor gatherings is allowed. Damian Collins MP, who is a rare supportive voice for football in parliament, has highlighted the fact that the Royal Albert Hall has been able to press ahead with plans to have thousands attend Christmas concerts.
The return of football fans should have safety as its priority. This cannot be solely about money, a trend that has been a plague to football over the past 30 years.
Nor should it be at the expense of any other industry. The arts must be seen on the same playing field as sport in this regard. Both will suffer grave consequences without the safe return of spectators in the near future.
If the government do not act soon then English football, with its unique depth and character, will be damaged in a way it may never recover from.
Image: Mike Beales via Flickr