MPs have urged the Government to allow fans back into football matches next month to save ‘a sport teetering on the brink of catastrophe’ – following discussions with representatives from Stoke City and Port Vale.
Professional football has resumed behind closed doors this season despite restrictions allowing spectators into other events pre-lockdown, including theatre, cinema and amateur sport. Plans to let some supporters back into grounds from October were shelved despite successful test events following a rise in Covid-19 cases through society.
Now MPs led by Stoke-on-Trent North’s Jonathan Gullis have argued that the ban should be eased after lockdown ends on December 2.
The case has been put forward that stadiums could be safely filled at reduced capacity, to limit the health risk to the public. That would mean a match day experience for fans and vital revenue for their clubs. Vale have lost an estimated £1.5m in revenue since March.
More pilot events are now on the agenda for “as soon as possible”.
The debate follows a petition set up by Sheffield United fan Ashley Greenwood to argue the case, which was signed by almost 200,000 people.
Gullis met last week via Zoom with EFL chairman Rick Parry, Stoke fans’ council chairwoman Angela Smith, Port Vale owner Carol Shanahan and Vale supporters’ club chairman Mark Porter, as well as Greenwood, to discuss the way forward.
He said in Parliament: “It is no exaggeration to say that the English game teeters on the brink of catastrophe.
“Away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League, cushioned by billions of pounds of TV revenue, the stark reality is that many EFL clubs find themselves in a financially unsustainable position.
“Away from the much-publicised world of multimillion-pound player transfers, the most eye-watering of which would fund most of the clubs in League Two for the entire year, the outlook is bleak.
“The survival of many EFL clubs depends on the oxygen of match day revenue. The very least we could do is give them a fighting chance by allowing spectators, albeit a reduced number of them, back inside football stadiums.
“For Port Vale Football Club, that would mean 4,000 fans in a stadium that can accommodate 20,000. This is eminently achievable in a safe manner.
“As a result of keeping fans away from stadiums, EFL clubs will require £400m of funding from their owners to keep them afloat this season, because the pandemic and associated restrictions have decimated their revenue streams.
“Very soon, some clubs in the EFL will be unable to pay their bills. They will be unable to pay the wages of their players and of their staff. When this happens—and it surely will without significant intervention—the integrity of the EFL will be compromised, and with it the future of our national game.”
Stoke City and Port Vale have come together to appeal for a post-lockdown pathway to be drawn up to let fans back in for matches.
Vale owner Carol Shanahan and supporters club chairman Mark Porter and Stoke fans’ council chairwoman Angela Smith had a meeting with EFL chairman Rick Parry and MP Jonathan Gullis this week to discuss the need to re-open stadia.
They want to address inconsistencies in the approach to public events over the past couple of months – and make sure that football supporters get a fair and sensible deal when society eventually opens back up.
Theatres and cinemas have been allowed to open with strict social distancing guidelines – and some clubs have even welcomed fans into suites to watch matches on television, with orders that they are now allowed to peek behind curtains to see the action play out.
Smith said: “I think some people in positions of power think that people who attend the theatre are different to people who go to the football. Well, I go to both and the same can be said of a lot of people from our city.
“Football still has a bad rap and it’s an easy target. I don’t hold with that theory and when society does open up, we hope that events across the board will be given the same consideration, particularly when you’re social distancing outside.
“You’ve got to keep bashing away and hope we knock down the walls that are put up in front of us.”
She added: “We all believe that whatever protocols are put in place, even if it meant writing and signing up to a fans’ charter, fans will observe them because we are all desperate to get back and support our teams.”
Stoke had drawn up an innovative scheme to sell half season tickets to try to accommodate fans when demand outstripped supply while Vale had sold about 3,500 season tickets.
But supporters haven’t been let in since mid-March and – although limited numbers have been allowed back in for matches in countries including Germany, Norway and Italy – there is no plan in place for whenever the virus is brought under control.
In the meantime, clubs outside the Premier League are missing their major revenue stream and many are facing a fight for survival over the coming months.
Smith said: “There has always been banter between our two clubs – and I did joke on the call that it was the first time I’d been outnumbered by Vale fans – but it was nice to see us joining together with our local MP as a united front.
“Both our football clubs do a huge amount of work in the local community and I can’t believe that many clubs do more, particularly when there are so many disadvantaged people in our city.
“And it’s not just meals at the moment, but looking after mental health. A lot of people are worried about their jobs, their future and, yes, worried about if they are going to die.
“The positives from being allowed to go to a game of football, even in a very controlled environment, would be massive.
“Football has also had a very good track and trace system in place for many years. Clubs already have all the details and addresses for anyone who goes through the turnstiles.”
Gullis added: “We need fans back in the stadium. On December 2, I expect to hear an announcement; otherwise, I will be a pretty stroppy Back Bencher—I make that very clear.
“Before I sit down, I will say it one more time: up the Vale.”
Nigel Huddleston, minister for sport, confirmed that more pilot events are needed to start to re-open England’s top six divisions.
The 66 clubs in the National League are also expected to receive a £10m injection from the National Lottery, allocated broadly on past attendance, to help games continue until fans are allowed back.
But higher up the ladder, the sport is being told to “look after itself”.
Huddleston said: “Pilots were pivotal; pilots have been very successful. They have been excellent learning points and learning opportunities, and that work has not been wasted, because it is helping to inform the decision making. We want to get pilots back and we want to get fans back in stadiums as soon as possible.
“We have had a plan from very early on in lockdown; in the first lockdown, we had a plan, and it has been explicitly stated and is out there. Unfortunately, what we have had to do on a couple of occasions is press the pause button, but we want to get back to the plan as soon as we can.
“The consequences of the decision not to allow spectators into stadiums from October 1 had financial implications. Therefore, we need to focus our support on those in the sector who are most in need as a result of that decision.
“We have worked with the sector over the past four weeks to build a bottom-up view of the impact that that decision had on football and on many other sports, and on their requirements. We are now in the final stages of discussions with colleagues in the Treasury and I hope that very shortly we will be in a position to confirm the support that will be available.”
The Premier League and EFL have been in discussions about an emergency rescue package to help lower league clubs survive a hopefully unique year.
Huddleston said: “As I have repeatedly said, we expect football at the elite level to look after itself.
“There is plenty of money in football but it is not all distributed in the right way. On the conditions for Government support, in most other sectors, including the arts, the creative industries and heritage, any Government money is predicated on criteria such as there being no other viable, credible options, and on the entities facing an existential threat.
“Money is on the table for the EFL, although I suspect it will not be enough for what has been proposed. I therefore encourage the EFL and the Premier League to continue their conversations professionally, and to recognise that they will both have to compromise. For the good of sport and football, they must come to a reasonable arrangement, because it would not be acceptable for the British public to bail out elite football.
“There is lots of money in elite football in this country. Average players in the Championship league, for example, get a considerable amount. I have heard of figures from £500,000 to £800,000 or over £1m for the average player in the Championship league.
“The idea that we should use public money—our constituents’ money—to bail them out is simply not acceptable. I recognise that the EFL and the Premier League both have stakeholders who are difficult to deal with, and who have varying opinions, but I appeal to them to come to a reasonable conclusion and a compromise as soon as possible.”