Crowd focus must be on lower leagues when they return


DON’T expect crowds anytime soon is the clear message from the UK and Scottish Governments as the second wave of Coronavirus sweeps across Europe. With the number of new cases rising rapidly, the proposed date of 5 October for crowds at reduced numbers in Scotland to be fully introducedhas been shelved whilst Nicola Sturgeon put in measures to stop the virus getting out of control again.

For football in this country, it is a huge blow after a glimmer of hope that crowds could come back at a reduced number following two test events at Pittodrie and the Global Energy Stadium recently in front of 300 fans. Although both events passed successfully and, as far as we’re aware, no positive Covid cases have been linked to either match, no further test events have been approved by the Scottish Government and the SFA are now handing refunds to fans who’d purchased tickets for the sellout playoff against Israel.

Let’s make one thing clear, public health is the most important thing right now and the Governments worldwide let alone Scotland need to do something to stop to numbers rising. Whilst those numbers are rising, and Wednesday saw a record 486 positive cases since the outbreak hit Scotland, the Scottish Government cannot justify opening more things up at this time.

For football, it is frustrating for clubs, who’d previously been told that they could have a reduced crowd from 14 September before it was pushed back, and now face the prospect of several more months without fans coming into the stadiums. Since the Premiership restarted, games have lacked the same intensity without the atmosphere generated from fans and clubs without doubt will be feeling the lack of income from fans paying at the gate and buying refreshments from the kiosks. Without the comfort of the new Sky TV deal and pay per view through club channels, you wonder what position those clubs would be in financially.

However, the biggest worry for Scottish Football is how clubs from the Championship down are going to get through the prospect of six months without fans coming through their gates. Those leagues delayed their start date until mid Octoberto allow for the prospect of fans coming back into grounds to give them the income they need, in the case of the Championship, League One and League Two they have cut their season by nine games. Now that’s been taken away, there is a bigger fear that clubs will be lost to the game.

Over these last six months, clubs have had to be innovative to find ways to get cash into their clubs to see them through this uncertain period of no football, including JustGiving pages to raise tens of thousands of pounds. To have gone this far without games and not go under has been good going for these clubs, but it can only last so long and games without fans at Cappielow, Broadwood and Glebe Park is going to be unsustainable in the long term.

Which is even more reason that when Sturgeon finally gives the green light for fans to return to games at a reduced number, they should start in the lower leagues, as I have previously stated in an earlier blog (https://www.scottishfootballforums.co.uk/2020/07/crowds-at-games-should-start-from-the-bottom/). The next set of test events should be at an Ochilview or a Firhill, not Celtic Park or Easter Road, because most of these clubs, unlike the top flight, don’t have the benefits of a decent TV contract or the facilities to stream games on a club TV channel.

That’s not to say Premiership clubs don’t rely on fan income, of course they do. In fact, Scottish Football as a whole rakes in more money from fans coming through the turnstiles than from TV companies and, by head of population, Scottish Football is the highest attended in Europe. However, on the grander scheme of things, they already have in place other sources of income that can reduce the shortfall, whereas the others have a more difficult challenge. In a recent podcast, Stenhousemuir Manager David Irons said that 300 fans at Ochilview would be viewed as a good crowd, which sums uphow important it is that the lower league clubs, and non league, need fans back in their grounds.

It’s up to those who run our game to have talks with the Scottish Government and their advisors to find ways to get fans back into grounds as soon as possible, albeit safely, or to find a way that ensures these clubs survive the prospect of no crowds until the new year. Their recent statement(https://spfl.co.uk/news/coronavirus-joint-response-group-46977) highlights the reality of the situation and how important it is to our game that clubs survive. Nobody in the right mind, other than a bitter few at certain clubs wanting “justice” for other events, wants to see clubs go to the wall like Third Lanark, Airdrieonians and Gretna, it would not be a good look on our game if clubs were lost through no fault of their own.

It can be argued that it’s unfair that fans cannot attend sporting events in open spaces maintaining social distancing when pubs in enclosed spaces remain open, and there’s no evidence that it’s unsafe for people to attend sporting events in this country. So far, the two Premiership test events, plus the Edinburgh v Glasgow Rugby Union match in front of 700 fans, have not reported any links to positive Covid cases, so the arguments to have fans back remain valid. However, it also wouldn’t send the right message to allow fans back to watch football at a time when we’re not allowed to visit a family members house and vice versa.

The need for fans to get back to grounds has never been greater and this is even more the case for not just the 30 clubs who make up the rest of the SPFL, but for clubs in the Highland League, Lowland League, the West of Scotland League and further afield. These clubs are the heartbeat of their communities and we don’t want to see them be lost to the game.

Once Nicola Sturgeon and Professor Jason Leitch give the green light for more test events, let the lower league clubs get the opportunity to prove they can host games safely before its rolled out across the country. It’s fair to say these clubs need them more and most are more than capable of holding crowds of 300 at a social distance, and that number of people in their grounds would mean so much to them at a time where they need the cash to survive.

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