EFL chief cautiously optimistic that Sheffield United and Wednesday can kick off next season in front of capacity crowds

EFL chief executive Trevor Birch says that he is cautiously optimistic that clubs will be able to kick off the 2021/2022 campaign in front of full capacity crowds.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 5:37 pm
Empty stands on matchdays at Bramall Lane and Hillsborough

The FA Cup semi-final between Leicester and Southampton as well as the Carabao Cup final – when Manchester City take on Tottenham – will see some fans return to Wembley.It is hoped the Government’s Events Research Programme for enabling the safe introduction of mass gatherings and indoor events as lockdown restrictions ease in England will eventually lead to increased attendances.

That would be welcome news for the city’s clubs, with United staring a return to the EFL in the face after a disastrous season in front of empty grounds, and Wednesday also battling to seal their Championship status without the backing of their supporters to help them.

Some 4,000 spectators will be able to watch a live game for the first time since December at the second FA Cup semi-final, while a crowd of 8,000, including fans from both City and Spurs, will be permitted at Wembley on April 25.

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EFL chief exec Trevor Birch: Mike Egerton/PA

Should the pilot scheme – which could also see an increased attendance for the FA Cup final on May 15 – prove successful and the path out of lockdown continues to follow the Government’s roadmap, then the lifting of all social-distancing measures is set for June 21.

Along with the NHS app, a Covid certification scheme, which could include the likes of a proof of vaccination, a negative test result or detectable anti-bodies, is expected to form some part of helping open up society again.

Birch, formerly of United, feels whatever national and local measures are in place, there is genuine hope for a return to some sense of normality for the next campaign.

“Our aspiration and goal is that, from August 6, we will be back in full stadia in line with the Government roadmap for unlocking the economy from June 21,” he said.

“Hopefully as a result of all these test events that will assist and hopefully lead the Government to allow us to do so.

“The key will obviously be to try to mitigate the spread by removing the need for social distancing which leads you to the Covid certification, which will undoubtedly have a role to play moving forwards.”

Birch added: “I am positive, our aspiration has to be that (full grounds).

“We are not blind to the issues surrounding the difficulties in achieving that, but hopefully with the introduction of Covid certification, which seem to be the direction of travel, that may well assist us in getting to that level.”

Birch, though, conceded the potential of rising infection rates across different parts of country with regional variations “might curtail travel” and so scupper the chance for away fans to attend certain games.

The EFL chief executive knows it is “vital” for clubs to be able to get bodies through the turnstiles again, with a rough estimate of the collective financial impact being around a revenue loss of some £250million.

“It’s been offset by a few mitigating factors that have enabled clubs to survive – the Championship loans, Premier League bail-out of Leagues One and Two,” said Birch, who took up his position at the EFL in January after roles as Swansea chairman and director of football operations at Tottenham.

“We have had some wage deferrals and cuts, the HMRC enforcement standstill, iFollow has helped as well, so there were some mitigating aspects – but another season behind closed doors would have been unpalatable for most of the clubs.

“We are trying to create certainty out of a very uncertain situation to enable the clubs to plan and give them confidence in planning for next season.

“By looking forward positively, we do have the June 21 date where it is ‘all systems go’, albeit with some caveats around that, but we have to plan accordingly.

“The clubs all want to know what to do in terms of season tickets, whether we have to offer iFollow or are confident of getting the fans back early doors.”

Birch feels the “positive noise” coming out of host cities for Euro 2020 can also give the EFL hope for August.

“All of that helps to create a little bit of more certainty and comfort around our ability to get back in front of fans,” he said. “It is encouraging that they are talking about those numbers.”

Specific details of how fans will travel to and attend the Carabao Cup final have yet to be confirmed, with Birch admitting “there are a lot of moving parts in it” with all of the stakeholders involved.

Some tickets at Wembley will be made available to local residents as well as NHS workers.

“I would hope there are as few restrictions as possible, and it will be a normal enjoyment of the game,” Birch said.

“Hopefully we are the best bet to prove that we have got the professional experience to deliver a safe environment and safe event. Any procedures we can put in place to achieve that, then we will embrace.”