Fans are set to return to football but questions need to be answered

Malcolm Hirst looks at the issues facing fans when stadia are open – and hopes the authorities will answer some key questions…

Malcolm Hirst writes…

The players are back, furlough for them has ended and the hard work of preparing for the new season has started. The start date for 2020-21 has been identified as 12th September with fixtures possibly being made public around the 21st of August. But when will proper football return, you know, the one where fans are actually in the ground watching and cheering their team? Well, I’ve got my fingers crossed this will be from the beginning of October, but that is not guaranteed. We have recently seen the government putting the brakes on the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in particular, the delaying of elite sport testing events.

Preparations at Vale Park must be pretty frenetic. Getting the players and stadium read is a major task in a normal season let alone one that has to cope with a pandemic and social distancing. When, or perhaps if, fans return this season, watching a football match will be fundamentally different and their co-operation with new regulations will be vital to ensure that maximum number can attend games. At the moment it’s looking like between 17-33% of the stadium capacity will be available for fans, which puts Vale in a good position with large capacity of around 19,000 at Vale Park. However, if, as supporters, we don’t follow social distancing rules within the stadium or fail to heed the instructions of stewards when entering, leaving and moving around the ground then those small numbers of returning fans could be further reduced. It’s down to us.

I’m hoping that as preparations progress that we fans will get the opportunity to feed into what the matchday experience will look like…

The club have their work cut out and it may be a while before everything is ready and final decisions have been made. I’m hoping that as preparations progress that we fans will get the opportunity to feed into what the matchday experience will look like. There are many questions including:

  • Will I have to wear a mask to watch the game?
  • How easy will it be getting into and out of the ground?
  • Will I be able to sit near to friends and family?
  • Will it really be safe to attend?
  • Will I have access to toilet facilities other than at half-time?
  • Will I be able to take my own food and soft drinks into Vale Park?
  • If I don’t feel safe enough to renew my season ticket, will I lose the seat I have sat in for years?
  • If I buy a season ticket what happens if matches start behind closed doors, or if there is a spike in coronavirus cases in Stoke-on-Trent and more matches are played behind closed doors?
  • Will I be able to get a ticket, or will it only be for season ticket holders?

There will be many more questions running through supporters’ heads. Although the club may not be able to answer all those yet, I hope there will be some consultation in parallel with the preparations being made. It seems to me that fans’ views will have an impact on some of the club’s decisions. For example, we’ve sold around 2,000 season tickets so far which is amazing. However, of those who have not renewed how many more will do so? Some may feel it’s too risky for them to attend. Other fans may only attend if everyone is wearing a mask, others may only attend if they don’t have to wear a mask. All of this might affect the club’s decision on whether to offer tickets to away fans.

If Vale are only likely to have 3,000 home fans (a mixture of season tickets and ad hoc purchases) then there may be an opportunity to offer other clubs away tickets, which might in turn help Vale financially. Should offering tickets to away fans only be on a reciprocal basis? If Vale are offered away tickets how should these be allocated? Let’s be clear: there are no easy answers to such questions. What is clear, however, is that fans have never been more important to the game of football than they are at the moment. Let’s see what transpires.

Malc UTV

Malcolm is a member of the National Council for the Football Supporters’ Association