Football returned to Pilot Field as a spectator sport last Saturday when Hastings United hosted Folkestone Invicta in a pre-season friendly. Under Football Association guidelines which apply until 31st August, numbers attending were limited to not more than 15% of  “minimum ground grading capacity”, which for clubs at United’s level (Isthmian League South-East Division) meant 200 only, even though  a “Covid-19 Matchday Operations Plan” published on the club’s website calculates that the venue could admit and keep more than 750 socially distanced. 

Home matches from 31st August will be allowed to double the maximum capacity to 400, and the league season is now scheduled to kick off on 19th September on that basis. However, given that crowd numbers at Pilot Field last year averaged over 600, with the local derby against Ashford attracting almost 1,200, it seems that many home supporters will be left ticketless for most games, and that purchase of a season ticket may be the only way of ensuring entry. Those who bought them for 2020/21 some months ago despite the lockdown should be feeling pleased with their investment. The United board has indicated that, even if one-off matchday tickets are still available for purchase, prices may have to rise to compensate the club for reduced numbers.

On the field United suffered their first defeat in six pre-season matches, going down 1-0 to Folkestone after an early error by goalkeeper Louis Rogers. They had much of the possession, many goal-scoring chances, and there was no disgrace in losing to a team that was lying fourth in the Isthmian Premier table (one tier above them) in March. There must be just a faint anxiety, though, as to whether the squad has enough firepower up front. 

Most of last year’s first team squad have re-signed for the season, including experienced central defenders Gary Elphick and Craig Stone, Sam Adams and Jack Dixon in midfield, and striker Ben Pope. However, with livewire striker Daniel Ajakaiye leaving to join Havant and Waterlooville in the National League, and key midfielder Adam Lovatt also clearly looking to pursue his career at a higher level, manager Chris Agutter still has to resolve his starting line-up. Much is hoped for from new recruits Lloyd Dawes and Aaron Capon, while former academy striker Tom Chalmers has been given plenty of pre-season match time to make an impact. 

Whether or not you can get to the games, we’ll keep you informed.

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