Shrewsbury Town are one of the seven clubs that will hold test events with supporters at games this weekend. Their chief executive told us how they’re going to do it…
This weekend will see a series of test events up and down England which could be crucial to the survival of some clubs in the Football League.
Seven games (down from an initial list of ten) will see a maximum of 1,000 supporters attending, as clubs desperately try to look forward to a time when fans can be in grounds more regularly.
The down side to all this is clear: at a time when cases of COVID-19 are rising in different parts of the country and technically speaking groups of more than six people are not allowed to gather (unless they’re on horses chasing foxes), getting 1,000 people to congregate in one place seems, at best, odd.
But those 1,000 will be outdoors, and if the clubs in question do things correctly, socially-distanced enough to prevent the spread of the virus.
Shrewsbury are one of the seven remaining clubs who will have fans at their game this weekend, as they welcome Northampton Town to the Montgomery Waters Meadow.
The Shrews’ chief executive Brian Caldwell joined George Elek and Ali Maxwell on The Totally Football League Show: Extra-Time to explain what will happen, starting from the beginning.
“We got an email on Tuesday at 11.30am,” he said. “We had to get the OK from our local safety advisory group, which includes the Shropshire Council, police, fire, ambulance etc, and we had to reply by 2pm. So we had two-and-a-half hours to get all that done.
“We managed to do that, put the application in, then clubs were vetted between the Sports Ground Safety Authority and the EFL and put to the government, to get the go-ahead.
“It’s been all hands to the pump since then, because we didn’t get the go-ahead until Wednesday at 1pm. We then put tickets out, which we had pre-prepared on the assumption that we would hopefully get the pilot. The 1,000 tickets have gone to season ticket holders who have taken up the entire allocation.”
How have the lucky 1,000 fans who will be in attendance reacted?
“The ones that have got tickets are absolutely delighted. It’s been over six months since fans have been in the stadium. The only difficulty is that we haven’t been able to please everyone: we’ve got around 2,700 season ticket holders, which is fantastic especially when nobody really knew what was going to happen with the new season.”
It seems faintly ludicrous that clubs had such a short amount of time to prepare for what could be such pivotal events. So what has to be done? What must the clubs prepare in order for these games to go ahead?
“Everyone needs to be socially distanced in their seats. When we were looking at opening all four stands we started looking at ‘bubbles’, analysing the database to see how many season ticket holders were at the same address. We put a SurveyMonkey out to supporters to give us an idea of bubbles, so we can best guess what bubbles everyone is in.
“We’re opening the West Stand with 1,000 supporters, in bubbles of one, two, three and four, all spaced out across the stand. We’ve had to bring in a one-way system getting to the toilets, because that’s the only time people will go into the concourses. We’ve had to put stickers and barriers down to the toilets in the stand.
“We’ve got catering units outside the stands: we’re in the fortunate position of having 24 acres around the ground, so we’ve got plenty of space behind the stands. Supporters will come through, rather than a turnstile, the two corner gates.
“We’ll do a ‘soft’ ticket check when supporters come into the stadium area to make sure everyone gaining access to that area has a valid ticket, then we will scan tickets on the two corner gates.
“Obviously a lot of education needs to be done with the supporters: it’s a totally different experience to what it was like back in March. Over the last number of weeks we’ve been trying to do Q&As explaining how it will work, because we need the supporters’ buy-in to make it successful. Not just for Shrewsbury Town but for football in general: when there are only eight pilots, you want to do it properly for the good of football and all fans in this country.”
Of course, the haste to get these test events going is mostly driven by the dire financial need for fans to return to football, mainly in the Football League rather than the top flight, as Caldwell explained:
“It’s important to get fans back as soon as possible. I think we can easily prove that it’s safe for fans to come to football stadia. I get slightly perplexed at how 350 people can get on an airplane but we can’t have people socially-distanced at a football stadium – an outdoor sport where everyone is facing the action.
“We’re hoping if we can do this pilot on Saturday and it goes well, and everyone feels comfortable that our plans have gone as we hope they will, we can prove that football can come back for supporters, and for our next home game we can get all four stands open rather than just one.
“The general perception from people outside the game is that football is awash with money. Premier League clubs are guaranteed around £120million, in the Championship they’re guaranteed £8million from TV etc. In League One it’s £1.4million.
“Our match day revenues are a much higher percentage of our turnover, so for us it’s vitally important we get fans back in as quickly as possible.”
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