Football fans are set to be locked out of stadiums for the entire season, with doors already being shut on rugby and racing as the Government’s new six-month Covid clampdown cripples British sport.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today that plans for fans to return to watch live sport events in England from October 1 will not go ahead. And with the UK’s Covid-19 alert moving up to 4, meaning transmission is ‘high or rising exponentially’, there will be months of misery for sports fans with the nation’s new restrictions expected to last for six months.
That would rule out crowds for all-but the closing weeks of the football season. Today, limited spectator pilots at Premiership Rugby clubs Bath and Bristol were cancelled – as were open race days at Newmarket Racecourse.
And in a further blow to sports fans the new restrictions on pubs and hospitality venues, who must close their doors at 10pm under the Government’s curfew, could see them locked out of the closing moments of big evening football matches.
The Premier League continue to argue that their stadiums are safer than shops, pubs, restaurants and other public activities – but grounds are still set to be closed up for months to aid the fight against growing numbers of coronavirus cases.
Premier League matches could go without significant crowds all season amid the new rules
Fans, stuck in pubs or at home, will be thrown out of venues before late games finish
Premier League: We’re safer than pubs, shops and restaurants
The Premier League has issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the Government’s decision to not allow fans to attend games from October.
England’s top flight had previously intended for some supporters to return to stadiums from next month, but those plans have now been dashed following Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s announcement.
The Premier League is adamant that, if fans were to attend, they would do so in a safe environment. The league say that it would be ‘safe or safer’ for fans to go to football matches than to go to shops, pubs and restaurants.
A statement issued today read: ‘The Premier League is certain that, through League-wide guidelines and a code of conduct developed with scientific experts and agreed by the Government’s Sports Ground Safety Authority, fans in stadiums will be as safe or even safer than at any other public activity currently permitted. This is already evident in other European leagues.’
Speaking today MP Steve Brine, a member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said fans would ‘probably have to sacrifice this year’. The prime minister’s warning that the new restrictions will last for six months will see that drag into 2021.
Mr Brine told talkSPORT: ‘As much as we love it, as much as we may enjoy going to live sport, it is not essential and it is the social contact that we are probably going to have to sacrifice this year.
‘Of course there was a possibility of getting some fans back and in big football stadiums you can socially distance quite well with your best season ticket holders but it is not about that it, it is about getting to the ground and all the different services around. It is the social interaction which as much as we may love it, is not essential.’
But there are likely to be problems in pubs showing the behind-closed-doors matches too, with fans facing being kicked out before full-time to stick to the new curfew rules.
Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Wolves at Molineux on Monday night, which kicked off at 8.15pm, finished at 10.08pm due to added time. Liverpool ‘s big game against Arsenal on Monday also kicks off at 8.15pm and will therefore finish after 10pm.
But there are bigger concerns for smaller clubs and sports without the same levels of grand financial backing.
Mr Brine added: ‘I guess it was always inevitable there was going to be a pause on this given the virus stats going in the wrong direction but there is no question the government needs to think about helping lower league football clubs to save themselves and they are going to have to step in.’
The Premier League estimate that football is losing £100million per month. While that can be absorbed in the top flight, the lower divisions and other sports are struggling to make ends meet.
The National League season may not start as planned on October 3 if supporters are not able to attend – with further talks planned at a board meeting on Thursday.
Many clubs cannot afford to play without fans and will also struggle to fund player wages when the Government’s furlough scheme ends in October.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the changes which left sports fans gutted today
Players have been furloughed since their seasons shut down in March with the National League failing to restart apart from for their end-of-season play-offs.
Some teams are even believed to support the option of an ‘opt out’ for this season as players, coaching staff and administrators face unemployment.
In his address to the Commons, the Prime Minister accepted that the lack of fans lower down the sporting pyramid would cause huge problems.
‘We will not be able to do this from October 1 and I recognise the implications for our sports clubs, which are the life and soul of our communities,’ he said.
‘The chancellor and the culture secretary are working urgently on what we can do now to support them.’
The Government’s position on fans is at odds with much of Europe, though – a point the Premier League made in their statement today.
Supporters returned to the San Siro in Italy’s Serie A last night as 1,000 watched AC Milan beat Bologna. There have also been significant crowds in France and Germany. On Thursday night, over 20,000 will attend the UEFA Super Cup final between Bayern Munich and Sevilla in Budapest.
A crowd of 1,000 watched AC Milan last night – but there will not be similar scenes here
Racecourses will be closed to fans despite a series of pilot events deemed to be a success
Bayern v Sevilla to go ahead with 20,000 fans
The UEFA Super Cup between Bayern Munich and Sevilla could turn into football’s ‘super-spreader event’, fears Bavarian prime minister Markus Soder.
Thursday’s clash between Champions League and Europa League winners is going ahead at Puskas Arena in Budapest with around 20,000 fans watching the game live despite the fact that it is in the centre of a coronavirus hotspot.
It will be the most attended event in world sport since Covid-19 put a halt to almost all public events in Europe back in March.
Soder yesterday warned: ‘My stomach hurts thinking about the Super Cup. Budapest is a risk area. There is a high incidence of infections and we have to be very, very careful.’
But here sport is deemed non-essential and issues with fans travelling to get to games and use of other services mean crowds cannot return.
Despite talks with the Government, there is unlikely to be any U-turn.
Instead, the Government will push the Premier League and EFL to come to an agreement over a bailout later today. The levels of summer spending on transfers by Premier League clubs has not gone unnoticed in Westminster.
The move has not gone down well with sports fans.
A Football Supporters’ Association statement today read: ‘The FSA has written to the Government to stress how important it is that we start to allow fans back into games.
‘Feedback from our members at test events has confirmed high levels of compliance with all the health and safety measures put in place, and that they felt safer at games than they have done in many other social situations.
‘Having fans at games is of course not only important to the lives of supporters, it is also crucial to the survival of so many clubs who play a crucial role within their communities.
‘A combination of revenue at the ground and government support is urgently needed to keep clubs going. The Government has to listen to fans and football clubs on this one.’
Other sports have similar concerns. Amy Starkey, who runs Newmarket for Jockey Club Racecourses, told the BBC: ‘Unfortunately it now looks like we will not have any visitors to a raceday for the duration of our 2020 Flat season.’
But major sporting events are unlikely to be called off and instead will continue behind closed doors.
Anthony Joshua‘s fight with Kubrat Pulev will go ahead this year irrespective of the announcement that fans cannot return to sporting events from October.
Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn had been working in the hope that the heavyweight world title fight would take place on December 12 at The O2 in front of upwards of 5,000 spectators as part of the phased reintegration of crowds at live sport.
However, it will now need to be staged in front of zero fans following the confirmation that large events will remain closed due to the rise in coronavirus cases.