Football without fans leaves pubs by stadiums fighting for survival

With football crowds still banned, many who rely on their business in Yorkshire are struggling. Alex Miller visits one pub near Hillsborough Stadium facing such a challenge.

Kev Woods, landlord at New Barrack Tavern

“Football is the most important part of our business,” says pub landlord Kevin Woods while settling into a seat in his noticeably quiet beer garden just a 10-minute walk from Hillsborough stadium. “The money we take on a matchday keeps up going. The rest of the week is okay but when you take that huge chunk of our potential turnover away, it’s hard to replace.”

The pub in question is the New Barrack Tavern and the time has just gone 5.30pm on July 22, just an hour-and-a-half before Sheffield Wednesday kick off their final match of the 2019/20 season.

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Usually the place would be teeming with hundreds of bustling Wednesday supporters and away fans alike, the cash register ticking over and the buzz of a football match building with every passing pint. But as Kevin, for 17 years the face of the popular Wednesday boozer alongside his wife Steph, takes a sip of lager, only a group of students chatter in the garden’s covered area while regulars come and go indoors.

The nature of the coronavirus pandemic has meant supporters have been unable to attend football stadiums since early March. The swell of business that comes with a matchday crowd, Kevin says, is something you simply cannot replace.

He wears a famously cheery complexion that drops from time to time when describing the scale of the issues facing businesses situated in the shadow of Hillsborough.

“You base your entire year around Sheffield Wednesday,” he says ruefully. “It’s the one day you’re guaranteed to take good money. The nature of Wednesday and the fans mean you’re not even that reliant on results in terms of business at least, some of the best days we’ve had over the years are the bad ones for the club. One of the best days we’ve ever had is when we got relegated against Palace. We always have an end-of-season party but there was something about that one. We went through it together.

“That matchday trade is a vital part of our business and it’s a vital part of an awful lot of businesses around this area. It’s shops, food takeaways too. We’ve all felt a massive impact from it. The worry is whether we can ever get back to somewhere near normal but we’ll never make up what we’ve lost. We’ve written off the financial year completely just by missing three months of a football season.”

The strains of the coronavirus pandemic are not limited to those situated close to major football stadiums of course, but having set up a financial plan around the Sheffield Wednesday fixture list, it’s a strain that has been accelerated, with two popular watering holes in close proximity to the stadium already having called it quits.

Kevin’s face drops further when he says that three regulars he considers friends have been lost to Covid-19, a crisis he knows there is no easy answer for. Despite projections having claimed spectators will be allowed back into grounds in September or October, a second spike, he believes, is inevitable.
It’s this uncertainty that is causing local business owners the most stress.

“People’s lifestyles and the way people go about living their lives will change completely. If that lasting effect is to the detriment of the amount of money we take to keep the business viable, we don’t know. It is that critical.”

Early in lockdown regulars organised a fundraising scheme to sponsor a bar stool, a gesture that has allowed the family to pay the pub’s energy bills and one that Kevin hopes to be able to thank them for on a matchday in person as soon as it is safe enough to do so.

“It’s worrying. If it doesn’t improve greatly fairly soon then we’re getting towards dire straits. We’ve done as much as we can to try to secure a bit of financial stability. Everybody, almost without exception, are both customers and friends. And we will continue to do everything in our power to make sure all that isn’t lost.”

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