Matches in the English men’s professional leagues will welcome paying spectators for the first time since March this weekend as the EFL carries out seven pilot events.
Clubs are desperate to get fans safely back into stadiums as soon as possible amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a decision expected from the government next week on whether sports venues can readmit spectators on a socially-distanced basis from 1stOctober.
Here we shed some light on what those attending this weekend might experience.
Which games are we talking about?
There are two matches in the Championship, three in League One and two in League Two – Middlesbrough v Bournemouth, Norwich v Preston, Blackpool v Swindon, Charlton v Doncaster, Shrewsbury v Northampton, Forest Green v Bradford and Carlisle v Southend.
How many fans will be allowed in?
The government has capped capacity at pilot events at 1,000, regardless of the size of the venue. Each club that has so far published information and is still going ahead has said the intention is to go up to the maximum allowed.
Will they be spread out across the whole ground, or contained in one stand?
This will vary from club to club. Norwich, for instance, will house their supporters in the South Stand of Carrow Road, Charlton will split theirs between the West Lower Stand and the Covered End Lower stand and Carlisle plan to split supporters across four areas of Brunton Park to test procedures in all areas of the stadium.
Are face coverings mandatory?
Blackpool ask supporters to wear them at all times when entering and inside the stadium, but they can be removed when a supporter is in their seat and facing forward. Middlesbrough also encourage supporters to wear them in indoor or enclosed areas within the stadium.
What about singing and chanting?
Research is still inconclusive when it comes to determining whether the louder someone talks, shouts or sings, the greater the threat of them transmitting coronavirus is if they are infected. Nevertheless, a sample code of conduct from the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) which clubs can choose to adopt says “extreme care” should be taken when shouting, singing or celebrating. Guidance issued to Blackpool and Middlesbrough fans says care should be taken when doing this. Hugs and high-fives should be avoided for people outside of that individual’s social bubble, the guidelines say.
What other differences might fans notice compared to March?
There will be hand sanitiser dispensers around the stadium which fans are encouraged to use. Queuing systems are set to be in place at toilets to restrict the number of people accessing them at any one time, and supporters can also expect one-way systems on gangways and other exit and entry points.
Will arrival and departure times be staggered?
Blackpool encourage fans to be in their seat at least 30 minutes before kick-off. Instructions on exiting may be given to assist with social distancing.
Blackpool ask that any ball kicked into the stands is returned to a ball boy or girl to be sanitised. They also say that players must not be approached for autographs, and that these will not be given. Supporters from all participating clubs are asked to turn their back as they pass fans from outside their bubble in their seated row.
Will there be more test matches in the EFL?
It is understood that entirely depends on how successful these matches prove to be. The games will be reviewed by government and the league, at which point matches for the weekend of 26th and 27th September might be given the green light.
What about the Premier League?
The top-flight clubs will not be involved in any more pilot events while capacities are capped at 1,000, saying that to do so would be “heavily loss-making”.