James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Football fans are getting a raw deal...yet again

Not so long ago, during a conversation with a friend, I apparently said something so shocking, so stupid and ridiculous, it provoked the type of reaction usually reserved for members of the Flat Earth Society or American presidents who suggest injecting yourself with disinfectant is the best way to guard against Covid-19.

Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 5:00 pm

(In the interests of fairness and Trans-Atlantic relations, it’s worth pointing out that our own u-turning government’s habit of sticking its finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing means I fully expect a minister to propose exactly the same during a Downing Street briefing anytime soon).

Anyway, enough of the politics. Back to the column, and the observation that threatened to bring my mate out on hives. It was the suggestion that, seeing as we were sat inside a bar, socially distancing but still surrounded by complete strangers, there was no reason why Premier League clubs shouldn’t be allowed to welcome spectators back inside their stadiums. After all, if it was apparently deemed safe enough for us to mingle with others inside the confined space of a tap room, (and yes, I appreciate there’s a balance to be struck between the nation’s health and saving the economy), then surely it should be okay to watch a match outside. Particularly as the smallest ground in the top-flight next term can accommodate more than 22,000 people. If only home season tickets holders were allowed to attend - and where necessary, a select number of these - my admittedly non-scientific mind fathoms it should be perfectly feasible to ensure people were sat far enough apart to reduce the threat of contagion to an acceptable level.

Apparently, I was told in no uncertain terms, not. Because folk shout when they watch their teams in action. Oh, and entry and exit points - even though the hostelry we were drinking in only had one door - would be impossible to manage. Personally, and apologies in advance to my pal if they’re reading this, but I think they were talking complete nonsense given that the rest of society is slowly opening up following the pandemic.

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What our chat did reveal, however, was how followers of the beautiful game are viewed by those who don’t. They way in which, ever since Thatcher established a “war cabinet” to tackle the issue of hooliganism, they are discriminated against and treated with suspicion by those in power. Yes, war cabinet was the description used at the time - revealed when the offending memorandum was finally released nearly 30 years later.

Football, like other industries, is still being crippled by a respiratory disease which at the last count has claimed nearly 850,000 lives worldwide. Last season was suspended for a three month period. Thousands of workers were probably made redundant as a result. Taking place behind closed doors, matches are now a pretty dispiriting experience, devoid of atmosphere, tension and noise.

Apart from the bizarre decision to allow their players to travel abroad on holiday at the end of the previous campaign, particularly to crowded resorts in places like France, Spain and Greece, anyone who has attended a fixture since ‘Project Restart’ can testify that football clubs have been a model of how to plot a course through the coronavirus era. Given the salaries their employers pay, I think managers would have been quite within their rights to insist upon ‘staycations’ with only limited exceptions. It would have been a perfectly reasonable request and one which, if accepted, could have limited the disruption caused to pre-season programmes by the number of squad members forced to self-isolate after missing tests or being declared Covid-19 positive. Expect more disruption when the new campaign begins in nine days time. Regional spikes are likely to mean it does not go quite as smoothly as planned. When competition resumed last term, the issue was still at the forefront of the nation’s mind.

But it remains a mystery why, if we can apparently be trusted to behave sensibly, safely and respectfully in pubs, restaurants and shops, someone, somewhere, has apparently decided the same does not apply inside PL and English Football League stadia. Apparently, it will be October - around 12 weeks since drinking establishments and eateries were allowed to reopen - before that rule is relaxed.

Sheffield United fans at Bramall Lane before March's game against Norwich City, the last time crowds were allowed inside the ground: Alistair Langham/Sportimage

Arsenal have announced they hope to partially reopen the gates to the Emirates Stadium on October 3, when Sheffield United are the visitors to north London, following a series of pilot test events elsewhere. In Scotland, where Chris Wilder’s team held a training camp last week, a small number of supporters were allowed to attend a rugby union match at Murrayfield. Yet the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Football League is still barred from following suit. Football is still waiting for the green light to welcome its own ones back.

Clearly, when that happens, some restrictions must apply, as Arsenal acknowledged in a media release outlining their intentions. Masks will probably be required under strict hygiene protocols. Chanting possibly outlawed. Likewise, leaving your seat outside of an allotted time and mingling with others on the concourse during the interval. I suspect most would gladly comply with any measures deemed necessary. Because football fans aren’t a different breed. They aren’t irresponsible, daft, selfish or members of a strange, unreliable tribe. What they are is the very same people who, by and large, have behaved properly and followed the rules since lockdown - well, something that resembled one -was eased.

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Football fans can be trusted, they are responsible members of society: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
When fans are allowed back inside Bramall Lane, they will be forced to socially distance, unlike above: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images