JEFF POWELL: It is time to repay football fans by letting them in for FREE when stadiums reopen


If any good is to emerge from this coronavirus nightmare then hopefully it will include proper recognition at last for the most put upon members of the sporting community.

No cohort, as the Covid parlance goes, has been more taken for granted than the poor old spectators. Especially football supporters.

Sky high television subscriptions, rocketing season ticket charges, snacks and refreshments costing almost as much each match day as fine dining.

Constant design changes of replica kit accompanied by prices rising way above the cost of living, children’s sizes scandalously included to the despair of working parent. Soaring travel bills for away fans, especially by train.

Manchester United fans cheer on their team against Manchester City in March 2020

Manchester United fans cheer on their team against Manchester City in March 2020

A dad and his lad can fork out hundreds of pounds for going to a single game. For far too long that has been the shabby reward for unswerving loyalty and enduring devotion.

Surely, now, the coin is dropping as to the importance of the spectators.

The longer they are absent, the clearer it becomes that football for the TV rights money is an exercise as empty as the grounds. Those ghastly sound tracks of crowd noise as tinny and hollow as a beer can kicked into the gutter.

Increasingly, l am being told by fans who initially were grateful for this distraction from the tedium of lockdown that their interest is waning. Recent statistics suggest that TV viewing figures have been ebbing in the last couple of months.

Partly, with so many games crammed into the weekly programming, we seem to have reached saturation point. Also, remove the rose-tinted glasses and look behind the hype and it hard to dispute that the quality of the football keeps on dropping.

Clearly, there is a correlation here with the loss of energy usually generated by crowds and the lowered sense of urgency and responsibility among players to satisfy their teams’ supporters.

More and more managers have virtually admitted of late that they are finding it harder and harder to motivate their teams. Jose Mourinho at Spurs, Mikel Arteta at Arsenal and Steve Bruce at Newcastle are recent examples, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer at Manchester United to some extent.

Manchester City host Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium in front of empty seats

Manchester City host Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium in front of empty seats

A limited number of fans were present at Premier League matches in November and December - here Liverpool fans watch their team host Wolves at Anfield

A limited number of fans were present at Premier League matches in November and December – here Liverpool fans watch their team host Wolves at Anfield

Jurgen Klopp is loath to point the finger at his players, at least in public, preferring to shoulder the blame himself. But would Liverpool conceivably have set an all-time record for consecutive home defeats had Anfield been packed to the rafters and the Kop in full voice? I think not.

Liverpool are the classic example of missing crowd syndrome but they are not alone. Players and teams all over the country are under-performing. Among them some so-called stars are being exposed for their technical deficiencies by their declining urgency on the pitch. Which here more than any other football nation in Europe is usually driven by the passion of the supporters.

Effort, it is becoming increasingly apparent, has disguised in the past limitations of talent. So much so that some players regarded as fixtures in the England squad are having to be replaced by youngsters who are still eagerly ambitious.

All of which begs the question as to why big-time football has been played at all during the pandemic. Not least since the players still cannot resist kissing and jumping all over each other if they actually manage to score a goal, before returning from their bubbles to their infectious families and neighbours.

Yes, yes. We all know it’s really just about the money. But do Premier League multi-millionaires need to be paid more than a £2,000 a month furlough packet to put food on the table for their wives and kids?. Better, surely, to have kept their poor relatives in the lower leagues going. Grass-roots enthusiasts trying to keep fit, all the more so.

It is not only football which is afflicted by absent fan malaise. Of that, recent disastrous performances by England’s rugby and cricket teams provide irrefutable evidence. Yet onward they all stagger.

England struggled at Twickenham during the Six Nations without fans to cheer them on

England struggled at Twickenham during the Six Nations without fans to cheer them on

Not for the good of whichever game it might be. Since spectator sport is supposed to be played for…er…the spectators.

What on earth is the point of Rugby’s Lions tour without the camp followers, Test cricket minus the Barmy Army, Cheltenham with no Guinness guzzlers, Wimbledon with no-one to scoff the strawberries and cream, Olympics without the usual gathering of its much-proclaimed family of spectators from around the world?

And as for the desperation to pack Wembley with potentially super-spreader crowds for the delayed Euros, it has to be better to focus on lowering infection and death rates to a minimum so lockdowns can end and grounds everywhere can reopen safely.

And when those gates do swing wide, how about a gesture to Joe and Jill public?

Government dole outs and Eat Out to Help Out are of worthy assistance. But once it is really safe for football crowds to return and the national game now knows how vital they are to performance and aspiration on the pitch, wouldn’t it be nice welcome back the long-suffering fans by letting them into their first game for so long… free.

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