Calls for football fans to be allowed back into grounds are growing louder, as Clubs join forces to support the safe return of supporters to stadiums.
Following the success of the Government’s pilot programme undertaken by seven Clubs where crowds were capped at a capacity of 1,000, all EFL Clubs had initially been working towards allowing a number of supporters back into grounds from October, with appropriate measures applied across the EFL.
However, amid new COVID-19 restrictions, the return of fans has been postponed, with games to continue behind closed doors.
Shrewsbury Town were one of seven Clubs chosen for the pilot programme and, with the programme being paused for the time being, the club’s Supporter Liaison Officer, Roger Groves, spoke exclusively to the EFL on his involvement with pilot programme, the importance of letting fans in and the impact games behind closed doors is currently having on both the club and the local community...
Can you explain your role as a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) at Shrewsbury Town and how it’s been impacted during the pandemic?
Together with my colleague Mike Davis, as SLOs our role is to liaise with both our supporters and relevant staff at the club, all with a view to encouraging open dialogue and engagement.
Certainly, in terms of the impact of the pandemic, we recognised it became very important to communicate with supporters differently, and we’ve had to make sure that lines of communication have stayed open via various means. I’m also chair of the Supporters’ Parliament and it’s another channel of communication between club and fans.
I’ve always had the view that wherever supporters are based, they need to hear directly from the club, via official channels, because it provides that consistency for everybody. Our Chief Executive Brian Caldwell has been on the front foot with this and he’s very keen on clear and regular communication and throughout recent months we’ve tried to make sure that we keep things as normal as we possibly can.
Without fans being able to return to matches, it will clearly be a challenging and concerning time financially for the club. What sort of impact has this had on the club and your local community?
It is a challenge and we’re not unique in this. Obviously we’ll talk about Shrewsbury Town but these difficulties apply to all Clubs. There is a massive impact on us without matchday revenue; these are from ticket sales through to hospitality and sponsor involvement for example. Our stadium is usually in operation 365 days of the year which has obviously stopped at the moment so that has a big impact on income for us as a club, too. Away support on matchdays also brings revenue into the club and also to the town in general.
There really are so many different people affected by this locally. Take our matchday stewards – not only does their role provide income for them, it is a way of getting out and about and being part of the community - it all has a knock-on impact. As a club we’ve really been trying to continue to help our community during lockdown, by delivering such things as isolation packs to some of our elderly supporters, to try and keep things moving for them, and is the highlight of a very mundane way of living for them at the moment I’m afraid.
Shrewsbury Town were one of the teams chosen for the recent pilot fixtures in the EFL. Can you tell us about the event, what was involved and how successful you believe it was?
It was great news for all connected to the club to be involved. We ensured there was regular communication with fans to sort out the ticketing, and making them aware of how it would work. Our CEO had done a lot of Q&A sessions about it and the key was the amount of preparation involved.
The Club produced a video showing fans what they needed to do when arriving at the stadium and all the changes that had to be made to their ‘normal’ matchday procedures. The video received about 45,000 views online, and I think it was a small but important aspect of the event preparation for fans.
At the match we utilised different entrances, controlled the flow of supporters, prevented congestion in the stadium and it worked really, really well. The fact that we’d walked it all through first as part of the required safety checks was a main reason that it was so successful. I attended the safety briefing before the game and was involved on the day helping supporters, reiterating our guidance and advice. I think it worked in our favour to have our friendly faces there, fans responded really well to that.
Once inside the stadium it was a case of ensuring the specific seating plans were followed, there were also regular announcements in the stadium reminding fans about face masks and to be fair to our supporters, what made it relatively easy was that they wanted it to be a success and they made it work adhering to all rules. One of the key questions the club asked supporters after the game was ‘did they feel safe at the match?’, and every one of them came back and said yes.
Many fans actually provided examples to us of why they believed it worked so well, and one thing that sticks out in my mind was that one particular fan said he didn’t think twice about visiting bars, restaurants and supermarkets, but actually none of them made him feel anywhere near as safe as he did at our match, and I can relate to that myself.
What we created at the pilot game was better than that. I’m not just saying that because it’s what people want to hear, it genuinely was. It was more controlled and a safe environment for the fans that attended.
Over the past few weeks the EFL, along with other football authorities, has issued an open letter to the Government to outline the importance of fans being allowed to safely attend matches. A petition asking to allow fans back in to stadiums has also had hundreds of thousands of signatures - in your eyes what has to happen to get fans back in as quickly as possible?
I think for me, the current message is unclear and a little bit inconsistent from the Government. Of course, safety has to be paramount but for example, many non-league Clubs are currently allowed to admit 600 supporters to matches, and many don’t have the quality of facilities as we can give them.
When you go up to the Championship, the facilities at stadiums are even greater and those Clubs would be able to implement all the safety measures needed. When you go on a plane or go to a cinema there are currently less restrictions in place than there would be at football stadiums, which I don’t think has been fully explained.
What I want to see next is a clearer message for football and its clubs. Seven pilot Clubs have proved that this can work. A number of key people in football have said that the events were a success and that we’re in a position to move to the next stage. That would help kick-start our communities – not just in Shrewsbury but all over the country.
I think the next stage would be for Clubs like us to be allowed a further trial, allowing a bigger capacity percentage and other Clubs to be allowed to have smaller ‘starter’ pilots like we originally had, to get everyone used to how it works. We’ve proven it can work, now let us prove we can make it work on a bigger scale.
Our club would be able to manage that and I want every club to be able to follow the lead that we’ve made. We’re available to talk through how we’ve done it and I firmly believe we need to keep the pressure on to get fans back into stadiums to support our industry and our local communities.