Johnny Phillips: Fans’ return lottery is just a hollow gesture

Who would part with their money at the theatre just to watch the denouement of a play?

Is it fair?
Is it fair?

Or turn up to the cinema and hand over their cash at the box office to be admitted for only the final five minutes of a film?

Nobody.

So why has the government’s announcement that supporters could be admitted for the final games of the football season been met with such delight?

Supporting a team is an emotional investment, a commitment to the cause. It is the passage of time through nature’s seasons.

The hopes and dreams that are fresh as the summer sun sets. The first steps into autumn where nothing is won but plenty can be lost.

That slog through the winter months; a jockeying for position, staying in the hunt. Then the outbreak of spring when many fall off the pace leaving only a few to fight for the glory.

Or, if the hand you have been dealt is a harsh one, that angst-ridden battle against relegation.

Attending football matches is the shared experience of these chapters. The passage through the turnstiles each week comes with an accumulated knowledge. An appreciation of what has gone before.

Opinion is moulded, formed and shared among peers. Each week, it is refined and shaped some more.

A ticket for just the final match? That is the worst manifestation of the celebrity fan.

There for the cup final, thumbs up for the cameras, but nowhere to be seen four months earlier when the beer barrels have run dry at half-time in the away end at that ground you never win at anyway.

When you’re two-nil down already. With both centre-backs on a yellow.

This is not to sound cynical. There is a hugely positive symbolism attached to the return of fans and it is entirely understandable that we need something to look forward to.

God, we need anything to look forward to. Supporters should not be kept out of their football grounds for a minute longer than is necessary.

But this halfway house of an announcement is not a satisfactory solution. It is another scenario where capacities are severely restricted and only a fraction of those wanting to see their team are admitted.

Many season-ticket holders will be faced with the prospect of another miserable bunfight for tickets, with so many fans still excluded from the return.

And that is before we factor in the science and the data.

In the roadmap out of lockdown, all legal limits on social contact will not be removed until June 21, in the best-case scenario. Even with these significantly reduced capacities, the projected attendances for this return of supporters will be in excess of the recommended numbers for social gatherings.

The last time fans came through the turnstiles we were hoodwinked into thinking it was a welcome return when the reality suggested it was just an unnecessary danger to society.

This is not a column steeped in scientific advice, but surely everyone recognises the need for caution despite the positive trajectory of the infection rate and the success of the vaccine roll-out by the NHS.

For now, let’s live with what we have.

For the first time in history we have had the chance to watch every game on television, whether that be at Premier League level or the iFollow service in the Football League. On one level, access has never been better.

It should not be forgotten that most supporters cannot attend all the matches, so in the midst of this cruel pandemic there has been a sector of football fans catered for like never before. Many have welcomed the televised revolution.

Of course, everyone accepts this is only the best-case scenario in a world that is far from ideal. Football viewed through a lens is unsatisfactory for many.

This is the real asterisk season. The nota bene season. The season that is different from all others. There has been not one full house, no meaningful home advantage given to players by the people who count. A season free of tangible tribalism and passion.

Exclusion is hard and patience is wearing thin. Supporters have sacrificed so much already, but it is important not to be swayed by unqualified voices who have no place in rational debate.

When the value of getting this right and ensuring we are never locked down again has never been higher, the noise from those self-appointed amateur virologists plaguing social media is a crass distraction.

Open up. Let me out. Give me my freedom. I, me, my.

Much like the madness of being permitted to meet up over Christmas, or children being admitted to the first day of the New Year school term before a hapless U-turn, there is no wisdom to bringing tens of thousands of football fans together across the country for just the last fixtures.

The best way of achieving full football stadia in the long term is to sacrifice attendances for what remains of the 2020/21 season.

Why turn up for a football match in May, when just by waiting a few more months we have a far better chance of ensuring next season can take place with no disruption?

If, in three months’ time, the tickets are on the market and you are among the lucky ones, ask yourself this: what is the context?

Being catapulted into your seat for the final game of the campaign will be a surreal experience. An enjoyable one, for sure. But it’s not the way this unique season should end.

For the sake of a fixture or two, can we not just wait until August to strike a more telling blow to this wretched plague?

For once, the celebration should be at the start of a season and not the end. In front of full houses.

The government’s announcement that some football supporters can return for the final games of this hollow campaign was met with a fanfare that was misplaced.

This is not a gift.

It is an empty gesture whose consequences are not worth the risk.

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