It was also almost six months ago to the day that English top flight football was suspended for the first time ever not due to a World War — though fighting the coronavirus pandemic has been a war in a sense as well, and one that feels like it’s been going on for a lot longer than six months. Six years, maybe.
And we’re nowhere near the end, unfortunately, assuming that there is even an end that would bring us back to “normalcy”. Just recently, the UK government warned that we could be looking at another six months of lockdowns and various restrictions, including the continuing closure of stadiums to the public.
The empty stands have made for a surreal watching and supporting experience, with games coming across almost as fake, or as training exercises, often with scorelines to match. And the experience has been no less surreal for the players and the coaches, many of whom are undoubtedly just as tired of this situation as the rest of the world. COVID-fatigue is a real phenomenon seen across all aspects of our “new normal” life, and it’s certainly not helped by the (even greater than normal) uncertainties of the future.
Attempts to restore things to “normal” have led to ... mixed ... results so far, be they in terms of work, school, recreation, social events, whathaveya. Even after all this time, we do not have good answers to key questions. Whatever the working solution may be between the two extremes, full and complete lockdowns versus just letting the disease sweep through the population, it doesn’t really look any closer to being figured out than before.
But some progress has been made, and even as the number of cases is on the rise once again in many parts of the world, we can perhaps use that knowledge to our advantage. Just as the return of football and the Premier League was enabled by testing and bubble protocols, could the return of fans to football stadiums be enabled by certain sets of protocols and guidelines? Could we find some sort of partial solution, even if a full reopening is not possible?
That’s precisely what Frank Lampard is advocating for, something a bit less hard-line that a complete absence of fans.
“My main concern is how we the Premier League, in talks with the government, can actually start to control the level of fans we can get back into stadiums.
“Look at other parts of society - we are seeing people are, hopefully in right conditions, try as much as they can to have a normal life. We need it in football. Not just the Premier League, but support the whole football pyramid from bottom to top and I think that needs to be the main concern.
“Because we’re in this situation it might sound contradictory to say at this time when cities and areas are going into third tier lockdowns we’re told. We know that we have to be on alert. We know our normal lives have changed completely from before Covid times, but when you take a look at football in its own entity, we have stadiums, it seems, we could control.”
Chelsea had participated in a test event at Brighton back in August, which saw 2500 socially distanced fans in the stands. Unfortunately, that and other test events have not led to any real change, at least not yet. And yet in other parts of the world, even in some parts of the USA, we’re seeing fractional re-openings and that’s an idea certainly worth at least exploring, no? Perhaps there is a feasible and reasonable way to start letting fans attend such outdoor events.
“The clubs are very adamant that they can control how we have fans back in at a certain level, which will help the game economically and as a spectacle which is what it is. It is one of the best leagues in the world because of the fans.
“Conversations have to happen - have to happen honestly - and see if we can get the fans back in.”
-Frank Lampard; source: Evening Standard
As Lampard says, it’s not just about the fan experience, but also about the financial health of the league and the sport. It’s a conversation that at least should be ongoing.