After 3 months of lockdown the first tentative steps were made towards sporting normality when the Premier League returned to the nations screens. Sky Sports confirmed that the Merseyside derby was watched by 5.5 million viewers in the UK, setting a new Premier League record.
Although the fixture itself proved a somewhat drab affair it was clear for all to see that our insatiable appetite for football did not subside. Covid-19 has changed many things but it seems that the unexpected twists and drama of the Premier League are here to stay.
One thing is for sure though, with 5 games left to play this season, there won’t be 75,000 converging on Old Trafford on a Saturday. 55,000 expectant fans won’t be singing along to you’ll never walk alone on the tannoy. The air won’t be thick with the smell of fried onions from the burger stalls en-route to the stadiums and no more hushed “any spare tickets” from the cities grafters.
With no fans at the grounds, broadcasters have developed ingenious ways to create an atmosphere such as dubbing artificial fan noise over the action. Clubs have dressed the stands with flags or even pictures of fans to mask the empty seats.
However, there is nothing quite like the buzz in and around the ground on match day and the quicker fans are back in the better it will be for all. Here we look at some of the options with regards to filling out stadiums once again.
Social distancing- the buzzword of the last few months will certainly be involved if there is any chance for fans to return to stadiums. Luckily due to the well organised and high-spec nature of many stadiums in England this should not be too difficult to organise. With the updated regulations to keep 1m plus apart clubs could easily put a block on every other seat for instance. Rows could also be staggered keeping the players and staff further apart from fans.
Another option could be to give fans 15-minute arrival slots by which time they must get into their seats. The slots could start an hour and a half before the match and any fans identified as vulnerable could be the last to enter. The fans could also be discouraged from using public transport to minimise infection risk during travel.
Similarly, departures could be controlled so that fans leave row by row with the ones closest to the exits leaving first. After the game if anyone contracts the virus, clubs would inform the relevant health authorities of those sitting in the vicinity.
Masks could be compulsory upon arrival and during the game and there would be no food or drink on sale in the stadium. For comfort fans would be given their own bottle of water. Hand sanitising stations could also be installed around the grounds and fans would be encouraged to use them upon arrival and after moving around.
The final option in contention could be the use of the somewhat Orwellian digital Health Passports. Here each fan with a ticket would be registered and their passport would be checked to prove immunity.
These measures would be sure to keep people safe when watching the game and would give peace of mind to those wishing to attend. FA CEO Mark Bullingham recently talked of using Wembley as a potential stadium to trial such measures “When people looked at neutral venues there were a lot of things about Wembley that were attractive which could also make it attractive for a trial, but we’re a bit away from that, we’ve only just started having the conversations as to what the stage five protocols will look like.”
The resumption of Europe’s top leagues has definitely been a welcome distraction to recent events and whichever way you look at it it is genuine top level football with all the technical aspects we enjoy. But, there is a sense of it not being complete without the atmosphere and fans enjoying themselves. It is vital to getting fans back in not just for the feeling but also to get match day income back for the clubs. There is no doubt the financial implications of COVID-19 have been unprecedented for all clubs.