Matt Maher: Critical juncture for clubs as we enter period of new uncertainty
With still no guarantees of when or even if spectators will be allowed to permanently return to stadiums, there has recently been a distinct change of tone from sport’s governing bodies.
From the early weeks of the pandemic and through the spring the message was generally supportive and understanding of government policy, during what was an almost unprecedented national health crisis.
Now frustrations are beginning to show and it is not hard to understand why. Put simply, sport needs fans back – in some cases urgently – if it is to avoid long-term financial damage. Pilot projects alone will not suffice.
Jim Nagle, the EFL’s head of policy, who this week asked clubs to lobby MPs for the safe return of supporters, warned of “catastrophic consequences” if the government does not allow fans to return from the start of next month, or at least provide clarity on when they will be able to do so.
Yet clarity, as we have all learned in recent months, can be a rare commodity during a pandemic when the situation is frequently changeable. It does not help that the push for spectators to return to sporting venues is being made at a time when cases are rising across the country, something which has led to pilot schemes being restricted to just 1,000 fans.
The issue is not so much the protocols and safety measures each club can put in place but the logistics of managing large crowds travelling to and from one destination at a prescribed time.
For clubs in areas where the number of cases is high, such as the West Midlands, that is a significant obstacle to overcome. Clubs based in communities currently under local lockdown restrictions were excluded from applying to host pilot schemes this weekend. Such events, while obviously a step in the right direction, are not the strides many clubs had hoped for by this stage. With gates restricted to such low numbers, they are still losing money.
When football was first halted in March, clubs in the EFL’s lower divisions began budgeting for an extended period without money coming through the turnstiles. There was help from the Premier League in the form of advanced solidarity payments and though the situation remained unclear, there was always a belief fans would be back at some point later in the year. For several months now, October has been the target.
Should that now be missed, things could get very difficult, very quickly for many clubs. Make no mistake, a critical few weeks lie ahead.