How football fans’ return in May can be fair to all Premier League and Football League clubs still playing – Stuart Rayner

First, a caveat: May 17 could be the day football grounds are able to open their turnstiles again. Dates offer hope but if the Government sticks to its guns as it should, data will dictate the reality of its roadmap out of Covid-19.

RE-ENTRY: Fans could be allowed back into grounds from May 17 if the government's roadmap out of lockdown goes according to plan. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
RE-ENTRY: Fans could be allowed back into grounds from May 17 if the government's roadmap out of lockdown goes according to plan. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Depending on your point of view, May 17 could be an extremely convenient date, or an extremely inconvenient one.

It is the start of the final week of the 2020-21 Premier League season, raising the possibility it could be played in front of crowds ranging from 5,000 at Fulham to 10,000 at Arsenal.

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The problem is that whilst 10 teams will have that advantage, 10 will not.

QUIET: A view of play from the empty stands during a Premier League match at Bramall Lane earlier this seasonn. PA Photo. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/PA.

It is far from ideal. But then when was the last time life was ideal?

Complaints about sporting integrity are legitimate, but we have to remember why “elite sport” was given permission to play in a pandemic – because of the important role it plays in national morale.

So the show must go on.

We should remember that of the 10 teams who will not have home advantage on the final weekend – and would not have had it in any normal season either – Brighton and Hove Albion, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Everton and Southampton briefly played in front of (admittedly smaller) crowds in that period of pre-Christmas false optimism. Six of the scheduled final-weekend hosts, including Leeds United and Sheffield United, did not.

Rotherham United and Norwich City play their Championship fixture in front of an empty AESSEAL New York Stadium. Picture: Nigel French/PA

Some clubs might think playing in front of an empty ground rather than getting used to twitchy fans again that weekend might help their hosts.

There is also time to be creative.

Could away fans be allowed in, for example, in a way they were not in December? Would the Government even permit a 50-50 split?

Could we find other ways to give the losers in this process their moment in the sun? Pushing back the final two rounds of games a week each so everyone got a home game would require flexibility from Uefa, hell-bent on delivering the European Championships to their new schedule, so we can rule that out.

But pilot matches are planned from April, potentially nine Premier League rounds, so whilst they may be more restricted, it should not be difficult to give everyone a go.

The Monday-night television slot on May 17 could give a team – Newcastle United, who host Sheffield United that weekend ahead of a pivotal-looking final-day trip to Fulham seem obvious candidates as the league table data stands at present – a trade-off home match in front of fans.

Whether it be a haircut, a pint, or a day at the football or night at the cinema, we all need signals as soon as we can safely have them that things are returning to something approaching normality.

Making even a small number of fans wait three months seems unnecessary.

There has already been talk that the Football League play-off semi-finals could be hosted nearer to the May 29-31 finals to avoid them being behind closed doors. This is something this column has already advocated for a different reason, to make room for weather and Covid rearrangements. Blackpool’s waterlogged pitch on Tuesday only makes the Tangerines and Doncaster Rovers’ schedules look less manageable.

Why not take advantage of the fact grounds with capacities above 40,000 can host 10,000 supporters from May 17 and play those games in big, neutral stadia able to take 5,000 from each club and push the final regular season weekend back seven days?

Either way, a play-off campaign has suddenly become even more enticing for the likes of Doncaster, Hull City, Middlesbrough and maybe even Barnsley and Bradford City.

The biggest problem is that such decisions would need to be taken for the greater good, not the narrow self interests we saw in last summer’s bickering about restarting in neutral venues, voiding seasons and the number of substitutes.

Perhaps a solution would be all 20 clubs electing representatives without direct links to a club to make decisions on their behalf without having to study the league table and work out how it influences one side’s chances of relegation, but that is for later.

We are where we are now.

And right now – or rather as soon as it is safe to – we just need to get on with it.

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