Not a Level playing field – the staggered return of fans to football stadia
The announcement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this afternoon (Thursday 29 October) of which Covid-19 Protection Level each local authority will be assigned to has led to excitement among eagle-eyed football fans, who have not failed to notice the fact that Levels 0 and 1 allow for stadia to be “open with restricted numbers”.
The new system (which is similar to the three-tier system in England, but has an additional level at each end of the scale) comes into place on Monday 2 November, and is seen by many as the first step on the road to normality for ‘The Beautiful Game’.
However, while the development is undoubtedly a welcome one for football fans, in reality it is likely to make very little immediate difference to the vast majority of supporters .
Firstly, the only councils where infection rates are currently low enough to get them into the magic Level 1 are Highland, Moray and the island-only councils. The rural nature of these councils is one of the reasons they have managed to keep infection rates low – but it also means that they do not have many senior football teams between them.
Fans of Ross County, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Elgin City will be the only ones in the SPFL who can imminently look forward to reliving that Saturday 3pm feeling that we’ve all missed so much. Even looking further down to the Highland League (a competition whose name would suggest it will be permitted an en-masse return of spectators), over a third of its teams actually fall outwith Highland and Moray councils, instead sitting in Level 2 Aberdeenshire.
Taking a forward-thinking approach, if we consider those councils which are currently in Level 2 (and therefore might reasonably be hoped to move into Level 1, and consequently see a return of spectators, in the near future), we do start to see a few more football-centric areas coming into the mix. Aberdeen and Perth & Kinross each have a team in Scotland’s top flight, whilst Fife and Angus contribute a significant number of teams to the lower leagues of the SPFL.
Away from football, the presence of Argyll & Bute and Borders in this tranche gives some hope to fans of shinty and club rugby that they might soon be able to attend matches in those areas (although the former sport operates a summer season, and may yet write off 2020 entirely).
Some positivity, then, but a sobering reminder of how far we are from normality can be found in a glance at Levels 3 and 4, which contain both of Scotland’s biggest cities and all of the football-mad central belt. Indeed, three quarters of Scotland’s top-flight clubs are currently in the two highest levels, and it seems clear that it will be some time before fans in the game’s urban heartlands are permitted to watch their teams.
The other important factor to note is that, even when stadia are allowed to open, the numbers will be severely restricted. No guidance has been given in the Scottish government’s strategic framework as to what constitutes “restricted numbers” (in contrast with some other areas, where a definitive cap has been set), but the numbers seem likely to be a fraction of full capacity for many clubs.
At two test events held in September (before the second wave of Covid-19 truly took grasp), both Aberdeen and Ross County were permitted to host only 300 spectators at their grounds. Ross County are being a little more ambitious in this latest phase, and have asked for permission to have 750 supporters in their 6,500 seater Victoria Park for an upcoming match against Livingston.
Lower down the leagues, where it is not uncommon to find only a few hundred fans in stadiums which can hold several thousand, the return to a situation where everyone who wants to attend a match is permitted to is perhaps slightly closer to being realised.
Today’s announcement is good news, but it is tempered with caveats. Football fans are likely to spend the coming months monitoring which Level their local authority falls into as closely as they monitor the league table.
A return to footballing normality may be insignificant in the wider scheme of this deadly virus, but at least fans now have some hope of reclaiming one element of their pre-Covid lives.
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