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Socially-distanced stadia: What to expect when football grounds reopen

With plans being made for supporters to return to football grounds from October, we spoke to Ken Scott of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority about football’s ‘new normal’.

FILED - 26 July 2020, England, Liverpool: Bournemouth's Junior Stanislas (R) scores his side's third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Bournemouth at Goodison Park. Photo: Catherine Ivill/PA Wire/dpa
DPA vía Europa Press

Measures are being put in place to allow supporters to return to football stadiums for the 2020/21 with Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoping to see fans reintroduced from October. Minister for Sport Nigel Huddleston emphasised that any changes would be gradual but confirmed that the government has set a target of October 1 for reopening stadiums.

"I'm confident that there are measures that can be put in place that can give both those taking part in the sports and spectators confidence that they are going to somewhere safe”, he said.

“The October 1 deadline is the target that we’re looking at… In the whole scheme of things, it’s not that far away, 60-something days and we’ll be there. So I would be surprised if that date moved.”

The in-ground experience for supporters will be informed by work done by the government’s advisory group, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. The SGSA have produced an 85-page guide to help clubs plan for social distancing when fans are permitted to return to stadiums.

The document was written by their Head of Guidance Ken Scott who spoke to AS English about what supporters can expect in the coming months…

The Emirates Stadium.
Full screen
The Emirates Stadium.AFP7 vía Europa Press

Ken Scott interview

What is the situation for supporters hoping to be allowed back into English stadiums after nearly five months without live football?

In these dark hours it is good to have a bit of optimism and to look ahead to when we get through this. We know that behind closed doors sporting events are not ideal, sport for me is about spectators being there and attending the live event.

Crowds are not going to return to fully-filled stadiums anytime soon, but I think the key bit is the socially-distanced crowd - when we get that up and running it will be a very important first step towards getting fans back to enjoy their normal Saturday afternoons.

What changes might fans have to make to minimise the risk of spreading the virus during a ‘brush-past’ with others in attendance?

It is going to be very difficult to stop, we accept that, but there are things suggested in the guidance like the wearing of a face covering or face mask. It might be that the etiquette when you are passing people is to turn your back so you’re not getting face to face contact. It might be in the way that the seating rows are filled so you have rows filled with people from the same social bubble.

Can you see face coverings or masks becoming mandatory in football stadiums?

The key bit is to push it back to the individual to make that decision. And while all venues will take the highest levels of precaution to make the environment as safe as possible, because this virus is so unpredictable it is impossible to say the venue is 100% safe.

Away support plays a crucial role in the atmosphere that we expect from live football, are there plans to allow travelling fans into stadiums?

I think they may have to do attendance by postcode but the decision taken in the guidance, and this would be in the gift of the governing bodies, is that it is possible to admit away spectators if you wish to do that. It might mean that there is a little more work but we keep hearing about the integrity of the competition and I think that is very much at the heart of Premier League and EFL thinking. They would still like to have at least some visiting fans in but they might need to adapt the current rules [on ticket allocation]. I suspect will be very much done on a club-by-club basis.

There are currently some pilot schemes in the UK where other sports are trialling the reintroduction of spectators, will we see something similar in football?

Notwithstanding the fact that the numbers are less than normal, there are lots of different demands on the safety management of venues and the design of the venues that clubs really need to get their heads around.

The hosting of a small scale pilot test event, as has been for cricket, and will be for horse-racingandsnooker, will be extremely useful to help them plan the route going forward.
The capacities under social distancing may not be set at levels that will appeal to everyone, but I don’t think that there’s any doubt that it’s a major step in the right direction.


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