By John Bleasdale – @JBleasdsle81
THE number of new cases and deaths from Coronavirus are falling and more restrictions are being eased by the Scottish Government. After months being stuck indoors and not going for exercise further than the local park, it’s music to everyone’s ears that they can go to other households again as well as go to the shops, albeit taking precautions and maintaining social distancing.
As more restrictions become relaxed, the urge for crowds to come back to Scottish Football is increasing. Whilst the Government have, so far, been firm that nobody should expect to go back to stadiums anytime soon, Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen have began planning for reduced crowds at their respective stadiums, with Celtic having plans for 30,000 at Celtic Park and Aberdeen allowing 7,500 into Pittodrie (Rangers figures are not known at this point).
By the time the Premiership kicks off on 1 August, barring any potential delay caused by the SPFL v Hearts and Partick Thistle case, it will have been almost five months since football in this country was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans have been resorted to watching repeats of old matches to pass the time as they wait to find out when they can go to watch their side again.
But is it the right time to start letting fans into stadiums again?
Personally, if Scottish Football is going to start letting spectators attend matches again whilst maintaining social distance, it would be better to start at a smaller scale than at Celtic Park, Ibrox or Pittodrie. Whilst you can argue that a 50% reduced crowd could be spread out across those stadiums to maintain social distancing, getting into the grounds in the first place still possesses the same issues that maximum capacity has. You will still have people queuing to get into the ground and that will be difficult to manage in itself. Then there’s implementing a one way system to get people to their seats and managing inevitable queues for food and drink. Clubs will no doubt have plans in place to contain these issues, but it won’t be easy.
Rather than managing crowds of 7,500, 25,000 or 30,000, why not start at clubs in League One, League Two or the Scottish Women’s Premier League? Most clubs at that level don’t have crowds in their thousands and are in more need of their income than the Old Firm and Aberdeen, so starting there their and seeingsee that it can be done safely with the social distancing measures in place makes sense.
For example, Clyde’s average attendance last season was 964 and their Broadwood Stadium holds over 8,000. Normally, they only open the Main Stand, which is a 3,000 capacity. You could easily have a reduced crowd of, for example, 600 fans and ensure they are spaced around that stand to reduce the risk of any infection being spread. In League Two, Albion Rovers had an average attendance of 300 in their 1572 capacity Cliftonhill. That is manageable to maintain at social distance whilst bringing in much needed income to a club that has required donations from a Just Giving page to get them through this prolonged period of no football caused by the pandemic. If these events can be staged safely at those numbers, then look at the bigger crowds after a few weeks and gradually build things up.
The main problem with starting in the lower leagues is that their season doesn’t kick off until 17 October with a reduced 27 game campaign. Well, why not have these clubs arrange friendlies with one another or non-league clubs to get people along? The players could do with building up their match sharpness, fans are desperate to get back to games and the clubs could do with some income. Starting with crowds of under 500 would be a safer way of easing fans back in than 7,500 at Pittodrie, 25,000 at Ibrox and 30,000 at Celtic Park.
At least the League One and Two clubs have a start date, unlike the Women’s Premier League sides. Since their League was curtailed after one game, there has been no word on when they are resuming their season, or if they are changing from their traditional summer football season to the winter in line with the men’s. Quite frankly, the lack of information and media coverage has been disgraceful and the women deserve better.
Whilst the directors of the men’s sides have been embroiled in a childish internet spat for the last four months, the Women’s clubs have had to sit and wait whilst their League gets ignored. Given how much their National Team has progressed in the last ten years, it is disgraceful how the media has given them next to zero coverage through this pandemic. Don’t forget, Glasgow City have a rearranged Champions League tie against Wolfsburg to play. Their task is already hard enough without having to go into the game on the back of having zero match sharpness behind them, whilst the Germans have already resumed their season. A gesture from James Anderson to fund their trip, including COVID-19 testing, is a welcome boost for the side worrying about whether/not they’d be able to fly to Spain in the first place, but they need to get back to playing to stand any chance of causing an upset.
For City and the rest of the Women’s sides, there’s no reason why they cannot resume competitive football, and playing in front of reduced, socially distant crowds will help. It’s time the governing bodies gave their game some attention, and that the media gavegive them more exposure to push for their football season to restart.
The desire for getting fans back to games is high and the thought of football without fans is almost unthinkable, you only have to look at the Premier League and Championship to see that games are almost unappealing in empty stadiums. With our clubs more dependent on fans coming through the gate than TV money, the need is greater. However, it must be done safely in order to help Scotland maintain the progress being made in suppressing the virus. We don’t want to be back to square one and being in lockdown for another 12 weeks, so let’s gradually build our way back up rather than have tens of thousands descending on grounds straightway.
As much as I’d love to get back to Pittodrie at some point, or to Hampden for the Scotland v Israel Euro 2020 playoff in October, it’s got to be safe to do so and that the risk of the virus being spread is significantly reduced. Whilst the signs are encouraging, we also can’t get complacent as we’re currently seeing down south. Let smaller crowds go to the clubs who desperately need the income first before opening the turnstiles at the bigger clubs, then hopefully our grounds will be back to normal.