Back stronger?

First published in the Non-League Paper on 21st March 2021

The announcement from the Football Association that there would be no early return to grounds for fans effectively put an end to the season for most Non-League clubs and organisations. There had been some hope that new competitions could be introduced in April, running into May, with fans being able to watch once again.

However, the FA clarified that Non-League football, from Steps 1 down to 6, would be treated the same way as the professional game, meaning that fans would not be able to return to grounds before the 17th May. That has seen a number of leagues, who had started to plan competitions, deciding that without fans being able to watch the games, there was little benefit for clubs. Whilst some competitions may still take place, the question all Non-League clubs will need to think about is how many fans would be prepared to return, and when.

It isn’t a given that crowds will flock back as soon as they are able to, despite what we all think and hope will happen. It’s been at least four months now since any Non-League games were played in front of fans. For others, such as some at Steps 1 and 2, it has now been over a year.

Whilst when the 2020/21 season started at Steps 3 to 6, fans were able to watch games, crowds didn’t flock back in all cases after the previous season was halted in March 2020. Government restrictions on capacities were in place, whilst clubs had to make significant changes within their grounds to ensure fans, players, staff and volunteers were kept as safe as possible from Covid-19.

For example, in the Isthmian Premier League, nearly half of the teams saw a reduction in average attendances for the limited number of games that could be played at the start of the 2020/21 season. Only Worthing were hampered by the cap at 600 for Step 3, although they were playing their home games at Horsham’s ground. Out of the remaining eight clubs who saw a decline, the biggest drops were at Haringey Borough and Enfield Town, where they saw 12% less fans on average.

On the flip side, thirteen teams saw their crowds rise, ranging from 10% at Kingstonian to a whopping 97% at Wingate & Finchley, although they were still 60% below the allowable capacity. In fact, only Worthing, who played in front of sell-out crowds of 600 whilst they were decamped at the Camping World Stadium, and Horsham themselves, were within 10% of the restricted capacity. Most clubs were playing well below the level that they could play at.

A year down the line and clubs will soon start planning for the return of fans. But they shouldn’t just assume that they will simply return. Clubs need to work on making their grounds safe, welcoming and hospitable when the new season starts. A lot of fans will be in two minds as to whether they will return for a number of reasons, such as:

  • They have become accustomed to doing something else on a Saturday afternoon;
  • They will be more motivated/influenced to do something else on a Saturday afternoon;
  • They will prefer to watch Premier League games live on TV (assuming the Blackout period is not re-introduced);
  • They do not feel safe or welcome returning to grounds

Whilst clubs can look at creating marketing campaigns and initiatives to cover all points, it is the final one that should be a wake up call for everyone. Whilst we may have the majority of the population fully vaccinated, clubs need to ensure they put in place measures that support social distancing and Covid prevention and communicating that loud and clear to supporters. There needs to be local campaigns to get fans engaged again, which needs to start long before a ball is kicked in anger.

Getting the views, concerns, thoughts and suggestions from fans in the next few months will help clubs start to put strategies in place that will make fans feel safe and welcome. Perhaps creating “open house” events at the ground away from match days, giving fans the opportunity to see what physical changes have been made and ask any questions they have.

It is almost certain that every club will also need to look for new volunteers. It is only natural that some will have decided to stop or will not want the responsibility of a role that requires extra accountabilities due to the social distancing/Covid measures. Without volunteers, clubs simply cannot operate at our level, something that many fans fail to remember.

There is a massive opportunity for Non-League football to reset itself and go into the 2021/22 season in the best shape ever. That’s why trying to rush into bringing games back too soon could lead to more issues than good. For nearly six months most clubs have been waiting to play, let alone welcome fans back. With the season over for virtually everyone, clubs may be best placed now to start that preparation work, ensuring that we all come ‘back stronger’

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