The government and the Football Association (FA) have together come up with different solutions for the resumption of elite football, on the one hand, and of grassroots play, on the other, as the pandemic recedes – see the main feature on this page.

Thus global TV audiences have been able to feast on a menu of Premier League action performed from within a protected bubble since 17th June; meanwhile, grassroots clubs, albeit shorn of changing rooms and other hospitality facilities, have been allowed to re-start training sessions for the coming season from this month and to play matches from August onwards, subject to club-by-club risk assessments 

January: Hastings United fans cheer last minute equaliser at Sevenoaks
PICTURE: Scott White

That leaves a third sector caught in the middle: the professional and semi-professional football clubs, like Hastings United, that don’t attract TV coverage but need gate money from live spectators, and preferably bar takings from them as well, to be viable. What are their prospects of resuming play?

The 2019/20 season was wound up with non-league results for the most part annulled. In the Betvictor Isthmian League, in which Hastings play, all issues of championship, promotion and relegation have been shelved, and the clubs will start a new season again from scratch. They will not do so, however, until at least some paying spectators can be allowed into grounds.

Covid-secure 

The earliest that could happen looks like October. That’s what PM Boris Johnson signalled on 17th July, as part of his ‘road map’ for a return to “significant normality”.  He stated that the government’s intention was in that month  “to bring back audiences in stadiums…in a Covid-secure way”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has indicated that this will entail crowd management protocols at such venues, including one-way systems for the controlled entry and exit of fans, the installation of additional hygiene facilities, and the possibility of screening procedures on entrance.

Many clubs will also suffer a considerable reduction in full stadium capacity. Spectators, whether standing or seated, are likely to be required to keep at least one metre apart. At grounds where seats are installed in rows, that may mean occupation of alternate seats and/or alternate rows only.

Exceptional 

At Pilot Field, where the stand consists of benches without individual allocated seats and where the majority of spectators often prefer to watch from standing positions around the perimeter, that shouldn’t present too much of a problem. Capacity was last tested in December 2012 when just over 4,000 were crammed in to watch Hastings replay an FA Cup second round tie against Harrogate. That, though, was a truly exceptional occasion. The ‘U’s’ last home game before lockdown, played on 7th March against Whitstable Town, attracted a crowd of 721, and even the highest gate of the 2019/20 season – 1,189 that watched defeat by Ashford United in February – amounted to less than 30 per cent of this capacity threshold.

Assuming a league start in October, the FA has calculated that all 2020/21 leagues could be played out in full, but league and county cup competitions would have to be cancelled. If, however, there was a second wave of the Covid-19 virus, with the possibility of further local (or national) lockdowns, the prospect of a second successive season of league disruption cannot be discounted.

Amidst all these uncertainties it would be hardly surprising if clubs decide to take rather fewer players on contract. Hastings have, however, re-signed the majority of last year’s league-topping squad and look well-placed to challenge for honours again. Their prospects will be reviewed in more detail in a future column.


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