Why SPFL clubs and the SFA should pressure Scottish Government over stadium capacity
With pre-season friendlies under way and the new season a couple of weeks away, football fans are desperate to return to grounds to watch their team.
Scottish supporters have been able to go to Hampden Park to see the national team at Euro 2020 or down to Wembley Stadium where more than 20,000 fans watched Steve Clarke’s side earn a draw against England.
Those without tickets ventured to fan zones, to pubs or watched the game with friends or family. All three Scotland fixtures had a true community feeling.
The last thing supporters want is a return to those dark days. Hunched over a laptop, on your own, straining to see the players. It wasn’t enjoyable. Quite frankly, it was miserable.
They, more than anything, just want to go back to games with mates or family. You feel more a part of the team’s success and failures when you are there in the flesh, to celebrate or commiserate.
Routemap out of restrictions
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Currently, depending on local restrictions, between 250 and 1,000 supporters can attend matches.
On Tuesday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed a revised routemap out of the restrictions. The hope is that on July 19, all of Scotland will move to level zero.
It was reported by the BBC that from this date up to 2,000 fans will be able to attend matches.
Clubs will be able to appeal for special dispensation for an increased capacity for European or Premier Sports Cup matches.
Then on August 9, the country would move to beyond level zero and possibly normality for the first time since March 2020 – a wait of more than 16 months.
From then, according to the national clinical director Jason Leitch on Sunday, stadia could operate at a full capacity depending on the pandemic situation in the country.
The Scotsman had approached the Scottish Government on Friday to ask how many fans would be allowed to attend matches from July 19 and then from August 9.
A spokesperson said: “We recognise this has been an enormously challenging time for football and other spectator sports and we appreciate the patience of supporters, clubs and authorities over recent months to help us tackle the virus.
“We are working to agree the baseline mitigations beyond level 0 and further guidance will be published as soon as possible.”
Approached again on Sunday following Leitch’s comments, the line from the Government remained the same.
It is perhaps not quite as straightforward as Leitch suggested.
The role of the SPFL and SFA
This is where the SPFL and its clubs can show they are capable of working together, alongside the Scottish FA. A clear, cohesive plan should already be formulated and pressure put on the Scottish Government.
They should be making the point that a maximum of 2,000 from July 19 is not nearly enough, especially for the country’s bigger all-seater stadiums.
Celtic are looking to be “very active" in this regard. The club's new chief executive Dom McKay revealed to supporters that he had been on a call with the Government.
He was amongst the crowd at Wembley with new boss Ange Postecoglou for the Scotland game.
He said: "If it is good enough for Hampden, if it is good enough for Murrayfield, if it’s good enough for Wembley, it’s certainly good enough for Celtic Park. We are working really hard with the government and the city to get as many supporters back in as we possibly can.”
Hampden Park has held up to 12,000 fans for the three Euro 2020 games so far, while on Saturday, 16,500 was the capacity at BT Murrayfield for the British Lions v Japan.
It is therefore completely acceptable to ponder 'why can't we have more than 2,000 from July 19 without the need for special dispensation?’
The sceptic would suggest that the run of the mill Scottish football games don’t have the same razzmatazz and external pressure – Uefa, anyone? – as these big events.
That's where it falls on the football clubs and the different bodies to present a united front.
They should be using the crowds at Hampden Park, BT Murrayfield and Wembley Stadium as an example. Plus the fact pubs are open, indoor and out, shopping centres are getting busier and busier.
With that, we still have to be wary about the virus and ensure we are doing all we can to be safe. Cases have been rising but hospital admissions have not been increasing at the same rate which is important.
Come the end of July a large percentage of over-30s in the country should have been doubled dosed with their vaccinations.
On top of that, the accessibility to flow lateral tests gives us all some responsibility to make sure we are regularly testing ourselves and isolating when and where necessary.
For clubs, it should be noted how important fans through the door are for their financial health.
But also the mental health aspect of supporters.
If you look back to the 2018/19 season – when crowds were allowed in for the full season – nearly five million supporters attended SPFL matches.
On a two-week basis that is an average of 235,443 supporters attending league matches in the SPFL. That only increases when you go into the pyramid, the juniors and the women’s game.
Think how beneficial it is for what could be around a quarter of a million people or more to have that routine back in their life, to be able to reconnect with that community, engage with their football club and fellow fans in a more tangible way.
The demand to return is there. Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and more have all recorded strong season ticket sales.
Between now and the start of the league campaign at the end of July, it’s in the hands of the SPFL and SFA to do all in their power to ensure football fans are not locked out from grounds unnecessarily.