“If we don’t start letting fans in soon, then football like this won’t exist.”
Presenter and podcaster Michelle Owen is watching Cheltenham Town Ladies.
She reports week-in, week-out, on the biggest and best English football has to offer, but she knows all levels of the game are at risk in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“I just can’t believe that 3,000 people can go to a theatre indoors and watch a show but you can’t go to a football match.”
After COVID-19 cases gradually dropped in the UK, the Government set about re-opening all aspects of life. Well, almost all.
Despite the rebirth of indoor art galleries, indoor theatres and indoor cinemas, elite open-air football stadiums remain empty to this day.
A small breakthrough was made in early Autumn, as it was announced that non-elite football clubs would be allowed to welcome fans.
Non-league and women’s football has seen a much-needed revival in the past few weeks as a result, but as Owen suggests, there is still a long way to go.
“At Bristol City… they’ve opened up the pizzeria in the bar.
“They’re allowed to let fans in [to the bar] whilst the game is going on in Ashton Gate. We’re outside in a massive empty stadium that holds over 20,000 people – they’ve got a model to get 8,000 people through the doors safely.
The original plans for supporters to return to elite stadiums in October were scuppered by an increase in COVID-19 cases. Since that was announced, theatres and music venues have seen audiences return in their numbers.
“I just can’t believe that 3,000 people can go to a theatre indoors and watch a show but you can’t go to a football match,” said Owen.
“When all the clubs prepared [for the return of fans in October] and that was taken away, I think that was really harsh.
“They’re saying it will be six months from now, which would be March; if they do that, it will kill a load of clubs. It’s a simple thing which has been made way overcomplicated.”
Other continents have seen the seemingly safe return of large audiences to various events, as well as fans attending games across Europe.
“They had 10,000 [fans] at Borussia Dortmund the other week – they just need to trust us.
“If the science is that outside, two metres away and masks are supposedly safe, why don’t they follow the science?”
On a more local scale, the silver lining to this dark cloud remains the increased exposure on the otherwise slightly neglected women’s football scene.
“Hopefully it’s creating opportunities to see how good women’s football is,” Owen explained. “Being pitchside, you can get so much closer than at the men’s game.
“Hopefully fans will keep coming back. Even if it’s a couple of quid to get in, or they buy a coffee, it’s all these little things that help clubs tick over.
“If men’s clubs and affiliations are clever they can team up with the women, develop a great relationship, and together they can become an effective business model.”