‘Just let the fans in’ was the simple message from Slough Town boss Jon Underwood to the National League board this week as they seek to pick a way through the minefield of allowing fans to return to stadiums while COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
Underwood says he’s not naïve to the fact that infections are rising nationwide, and he wouldn’t want the club to put anyone at risk, but he does believe 600 supporters – possibly more – could be safely accommodated at Arbour Park and he hopes some common sense will prevail within the Government to enable this to happen.
Earlier this week the Government announced it was ‘putting a pause’ on the return of fans to elite clubs, while fan pilot test events planned by National League clubs have been shelved.
As the Express went to press this evening (Thursday), the league released a short statement saying it planned to push ahead with the original start date of October 3, and was ‘actively engaged’ with the Government and the FA to secure a ‘critical financial support package’ which it hopes to announce very soon.
The statement read: “It is imperative the revenue shortfall caused by the pause to the safe return of spectators is responsibly addressed so each club can operate sustainably over the course of the forthcoming season.”
A large percentage of National League North and South clubs have said they don’t want the season to start with matches behind closed doors, and Underwood would only be in favour of this if there was some kind of financial aid from Government to tide clubs over.
“The National League set their start date for October on the basis that they would have fans back in by then,” said Underwood. “I think the reason they did that, and didn’t go for an earlier start, is because it’s generally accepted clubs can’t survive without the income that fans generate.
“The clubs have done the work now. They’ve looked at their ground and decided what’s safe in terms of bringing fans in. We’ve set our budget for the season based on what we thought we might get in fans wise. We’ve done our sums and put a squad together based on that. I know we’ve been playing friendlies behind closed doors, but all the signage is up around Arbour Park. We know we could safely house fans in there. I think the message we’ve given to the National League is ‘we need fans in, or we can’t start our season’. We just can’t pay our players without the income they generate.”
There’s also been talk of live-streaming matches for fans while the matches are played without supporters in the stadiums.
However, Underwood still struggles to comprehend the inconsistency of step three clubs being allowed to have up to 600 fans at matches when step two clubs could manage this just as safely and have the COVID-19 protocols already in place. Chalvey Sports, who share Arbour Park with the Rebels, are also able to play in front of supporters. Underwood says clubs are ready to admit fans straight away, they just need the green light from Government.
“Streaming is something we could do,” he said. “But we don’t believe that will bring the same revenue in because a lot of the revenue is the spend within the ground on match days.
"But, to be honest with you, we don’t see that as a safe solution for fans. I know that when we played the play-off game against Dartford they streamed the game in pubs and Slough fans went into pubs, indoors, in a crowded space and watched the game where a mile away they could have watched it in the open air spread out safely. It makes no sense. Streaming could be used in addition, say if we only had 500 in the ground when we would normally have 800. It would give people the opportunity to watch the game.
“The inconsistency is that the leagues below us can have fans in. And, even closer to home, Chalvey Sports, who share Arbour Park, can have fans in but we can’t. A level below us and they can have 600 fans in, but we can’t. I don’t understand that because we can obviously do just as good a job. So yeah, we feel a little bit hard done by and we’re asking for the situation to be reviewed.”
The Rebels were categorised as an elite club when they took part in the end of season play-offs, because their players ‘derive an income’ from the game.
However, Underwood would argue this isn’t about whether step two clubs and their players are judged to be elite or not, it’s about whether they can safely accommodate a certain number of fans in a COVID-19 secure way.
“It now seems that’s come back to bite us, because by saying we’re elite we seem to have been locked in with the EFL who could probably start behind closed doors,” he said. “But that was about elite players, It wasn’t about the fans because we were playing matches behind closed doors anyway.
“At our level the grounds are bigger than the leagues below and they’ve staged test events at National League grounds that have gone very well. They’ve proved it can be done safely. We don’t want to put anyone at risk, but the work has been done and we know we can hold 600 fans safely like the step three teams can.
“We haven’t been sitting around waiting. We’ve done the work. 600 fans would be lower than our average but it’s doable for us.
“There are bigger clubs in our league who might take more of a hit if it was limited to that, but most clubs could get by on that. The level above is different. You can’t make the same decision for Notts County and say Hungerford who are very different clubs working to very different models. Just let fans in – that’s the message but I really couldn’t guess which way it’s going to go.”