A shortage of stewards could hamper the return of fans to stadiums, as clubs race to resolve a series of issues before the relaxing of restrictions next week.
The question of who gets to attend matches and how much money clubs can hope to make in their attempts to recover from the effects of the Covid crisis are among the problems to be resolved, but come second to making games safe for supporters and event staff.
Government measures will allow for a maximum of 4,000 fans at events under tier 1 restrictions. The Sports Ground Safety Authority – which devised the rules for fans’ return – anticipates that, despite this, clubs may have to exceed their previous numbers of stewards to make events safe and show they are safe to the public.
But there may not be the same levels of staffing to call upon with a number of stewards having lost their jobs because of the pandemic, a further section on furlough and a third group of contracted workers who may no longer be licensed to work at sports events. Licences have to be renewed periodically by agency stewards and fears are that with little work since March few will have chosen to do so. Some stewards may also be reluctant to return.
“I think the impact of Covid has cut across everything,” said Ken Scott, the head of inspectorate at the SGSA. “So you’ve got lots of stewards who may have been casually employed or at best been furloughed so have been away from the business for eight months now. You’ve also got the fact that some of the stewards might be from the more advanced age groups.
“There is a big area in confidence-building to get not just the fans to come back but the people who actually work and operate the venues to come back with a confidence that they themselves are not being put at any risk.”
The limited return of fans is “a small step but a very significant one”, according to Scott, who said clubs and venues had been given due warning that they should be prepared to return in short order. “My strong message to all venues has been: be in the position of being ready,” he said.
Scott’s words echo those of the EFL chair, Rick Parry, who told that BBC that the government’s change of tack, announced on Monday, had “taken everyone a bit by surprise”.
“Some clubs will still have safety officers on furlough,” Parry said. “They were expecting nothing really before Christmas. Clearly it’s something we’ve been pressing for but it’s literally in the last few days that it has become a reality.”
Clubs will each face hurdles in preparing their venues, from enabling the use of food and drink concessions to making sure fans can maintain social distancing while moving through the ground as well as when in the stands. Those decisions will be impacted by which tier of restrictions a club is in, with the government due to announce new tiering decisions on Thursday.
A further choice will have to be made on which fans to allow into grounds. Away supporters will be missing because of concerns over the risk of transmission from long-distance travel. Clubs may then prefer to allow corporate fans in to maximise matchday revenue, but will also need to meet the expectations of season-ticket holders who have paid for tickets they have not been able to use.
Everton announced on Tuesday that, dependent on tiering decisions, they would be conducting a ballot for season-ticket holders and “Seasonal Hospitality Members” for the home fixture against Chelsea scheduled for 12 December.