Football takes first step as supporters welcomed back

For 1,000 lucky Middlesbrough supporters the day has finally come. For Hull City’s fans, it will have to wait.

The Riverside stadium, where fans will be allowed back in today.

It would not be life in coronavirus Britain without a U-turn, and 25 hours after it was announced Hull would be allowed a limited number of spectators into their League One match against Crewe Alexandra, it was announced they would not after all.

The turnstiles will still open for Middlesbrough’s game against Bournemouth and the sporting world will not just be watching, but crossing its collective fingers. Football clubs cannot operate without bums on seats – certainly not the lower down the pyramid you go. Darren Moore, whose Doncaster Rovers players will be excited guinea pigs at Charlton Athletic’s Valley spelt it out – “It would be catastrophic for league clubs at this level to sustain a whole season without fans.”

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Moore’s predecessor, Hull coach Grant McCann, was of the same mind: “If fans don’t come back in sooner rather than later I don’t know how football clubs can survive.”

A match ticket today is therefore not just a privilege, but a responsibility.

Sadly, it is a privilege denied Hull’s fans, who would probably have found watching their revitalised team far more enjoyable than when they were last at a game, chanting “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” as their slide out of the Championship troughed in March’s 5-1 defeat at Stoke City.

Football League clubs were invited to bid to stage today’s pilots to test football’s readiness to host fans again after the Covid-19 lockdowns and lockouts.

Hull volunteered – tentatively, only committing to 600 supporters, not the 1,000 others will take – and found out at 1pm on Wednesday they had been given the thumbs up by the Football League, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Sports Grounds Safety Authority, only to be kaiboshed when Hull City Council and the local Safety Advisory Group refused permission the next day. The reason was that Hull’s infection rate jumped from 4.2 to 15.3 per 100,000 people in a week, which begs the question why a Government department like the DCMS, which might not then have had access to those figures but surely could have been aware of the trend, raised their hopes.

Speaking on Wednesday night, new Hull centre-back Alfie Jones had been thrilled at the prospect.

“I haven’t met any of the fans yet so to put a performance on for them and give them what they deserve – Hull getting points – will be amazing,” he said.

Middlesbrough got the go-ahead despite tightened restrictions from County Durham to Northumberland, and even though manager Neil Warnock and an unnamed player have tested positive for coronavirus.

With away supporters not part of the pilots, Bradford City will be on their own at Forest Green Rovers in League Two.

“Even away from home, it gives you a boost,” argues midfielder Elliot Watt. “If you hear somebody in the crowd giving you a little bit of stick, it pushes you on.”

The new normal made for different football, hurting players like Watt, helping others who prefer to get on with their game in peace. The even newer normal will be different again.

Doncaster left-back Reece James thinks that whilst he will struggle to notice the difference when the game is underway, it could affect coaches.

“From a tactical point of view, it might be a bit different because you can hear a lot more things,” he points out. “Everything said on the pitch is able to be heard. Even when a small number of fans are there, that will be less.

“It might be in your mind at the start but when you’re in a game you could be in front of 70,000 fans, 2,000 fans or no one but you try to focus on what is happening on the pitch.”

Kevin Blackwell, who will deputise for the self-isolating Warnock today, thinks Boro are ready for the change.

“Having fans behind you makes such a difference,” he argues.

“When it was closed down and we were fighting relegation, it helped us because certainly myself, Neil and Ronnie (Jepson) were able to get information across live in the game. Now we look a little bit more structured and are getting better performances the added bit of the crowd is something we need to give us a little extra edge to win games. We cannot wait until we can get many more back.”

No one can. Football has badly missed its fans, and not just their money. Of all this weekend’s results, the outcome of the pilots will be the most eagerly followed.

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James Mitchinson

Editor