The majority of last year’s Hastings United squad have re-signed for the 2020/21 season together with some heralded new recruits, and embarked on a series of pre-season friendly games from the beginning of this month. 

Off the field, both energetic CEO Billy Woods and accomplished manager Chris Agutter have been putting a positive spin on the team’s readiness for renewed action following the cancellation of last season’s league-topping campaign. “It was a massive disappointment, but we need to use it as an opportunity to get bigger and better,” Agutter told the Hastings Observer last week. 

Jack Dixon (left, in white and maroon) and Tom Chalmers (right, likewise) in action for the ‘U’s against Grays Athletic last Saturday
PICTURE: Scott White

And on the field United have set off at a gallop, winning 8-0 at local opposition Westfield on 1st August, 2-1 against Southern Combination side Eastbourne United three days later, and 3-0 last Saturday away at Grays Athletic, who play at equivalent level in the North Division of the Isthmian League.

However, the opening of the league season, and indeed the whole future of football at semi-pro level, appear very uncertain.

Hastings remain in the Isthmian League’s South-East Division, which no longer has any sponsor following the withdrawal of betting company BetVictor last month. The league website announces that the competitive season will commence on 19th September, provided that all participating clubs have prepared “risk assessments” and “comprehensive plans” showing “facilities compliant with current Government legislation and guidance relating to Covid-19”. But those conditions seem impossible to reconcile with the paying spectator numbers which those clubs, including Hastings, need to attract through their gates to be financially viable.

On 17th July PM Boris Johnson signalled as part of his ‘road map’ for a return to “significant normality” that sports stadia should be re-opened “in a Covid-secure way” from October. Under present guidance, no more than 30 people are allowed to gather for any kind of staged event, whether socially distanced or not. One may wonder what is the difference between crowds flocking onto local beaches (or parading at Black Lives Matter protest demos) and those scattered around a football stadium. But with government politicians and their scientific advisers continuing to stress the risks of the coronavirus R-rate escalating back up in colder autumn weather, and warning of having to tighten rather than loosen social distancing restrictions, the timing looks poor for spectator sport to be made an exception, whatever social controls and hygienic measures are imposed.

As a matter of fact, more than 100 spectators turned up to watch the match at Westfield – an indication both of the local interest which United attract and of the general level of demand for any kind of live entertainment which people have been starved of for the past five months. But there’s no doubt that such a gathering was in breach of the guidance, only excusable because the number wasn’t anticipated. All further pre-season matches, including those played against Eastbourne United and Grays Athletic last week, have been required to take place behind closed doors, with a 30-maximum threshold including players and officials.

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