In the smaller grounds, the teams down the divisions will be welcoming reduced numbers of supporters following a frantic few days where multiple last minute changes have been implemented to comply with a new set of rules.
Yes, severe COVID restrictions have once again been imposed on the nation’s most popular sport and pastime.
Football is on the danger list once again, with health advisors and political decision makers deciding that there are simply too many risks around the national game. The normal average attendance of 5,500 at Motherwell’s Fir Park is too many. 1,400 at Gayfield in Arbroath too much of a risk, as is 670 at Montrose’s Links Park.
However, just a few miles away from some of these empty or sparsely filled high risk football grounds, tens of thousands of people will be descending on shopping centres. The Boxing Day sales are underway. Retail outlets have cranked up their marketing as well as their sales and offers in order to attract as many people as possible to their stores. According to health advisors and political decision makers, that’s ok. No restrictions on numbers there.
You would be forgiven for wondering why this is the case? Particularly when you factor in that football fans at games are sitting outdoors, and we have been told it’s safer than indoors, where of course most of the shoppers will be.
How can sitting socially distanced outdoors at Forthbank Stadium in Stirling be more of a risk than shopping indoors at Silverburn?
When asked about 50,000 fans at a game last week, government adviser Professor Jason Leitch said: “The outdoor experience at St Johnstone or Hampden – that doesn’t worry me particularly, but getting to and from it do.”
Well unless shoppers at Silverburn or Braehead are teleporting in, why do the worries not extend into that environment? Shoppers will be using their own cars, like football fans do too. Many will elect to use public transport including buses and trains, again like football fans do. Some will use Park and Ride which is perhaps an additional risk to shoppers that football fans don’t face.
Some additional aspects specific to football were cited as areas of concern, and these included queuing at turnstiles, toilets and snack bars.
But surely those same concerns exist for shoppers? They will of course be faced with queuing, multiple times more than football fans do as they move from shop to shop. They will need to use toilets, they’ll stand in line at food outlets, they will have more interaction with products on the shelves and shop staff than anyone would have sitting in their outdoor seat at a football game for 90 minutes.
The arguments don’t stack up and for the first time, I find myself starting to wonder if there is something deeper here in terms of an unconscious bias against football fans which despite all the money at the highest level, remains a working-class sport.
Is it any wonder that there has been a hardening of attitudes amongst football fans over this past week as the new restrictions were imposed?
Football has played a key role in fighting the virus right from the start. It shut itself down completely, well over a week before the Government imposed lockdown restrictions.
When it wanted to restart, the employees (players) were all subjected to a weekly PCR testing regime. Very few other businesses PCR tested all their employees every week for nearly a full year. At an average cost of around £75 per person for around 30 people, this adds up. Multiply that across all teams in the professional game and you’ll see that millions of pounds were spent on early identification of the virus and limiting its spread.
The contact tracing used by Scottish football went further than the standard Test & Protect. A specialist government Elite Sport Clinical Advisory Group (ESCAG) was established. Every case at a club is passed to the Scottish FA in line with written protocols and procedures. We’ve all had to learn about Annex 11 in our rules, and how this links to Regulation 3.10 for Target Groups 1 & 2 subject to Articles 103.1, 103.2, 103.4, 103.7 & 103.9. What does that all mean? It’s just the tip of a pile of rules and regulations that govern how we deal with COVID cases and prevention. Football clubs take this issue seriously, have put their money behind it, and continue to be part of the solution.
As for the fans, they have every right to feel aggrieved. They have been let down. Let’s not forget that whilst many shops and businesses reopened to customers last year, football fans were not allowed to attend any games last season – not one.
In order to finally get the ok to attend, they were told to get vaccinated, which the majority complied with. Bear in mind that a large proportion of fans are in a younger age group where there has been vaccine hesitancy. Not because young people are anti-vax, but because they believe themselves to be less vulnerable to the virus. Even when you put that aside, I know myself I thought I was bulletproof in my early twenties.
However, many of these younger fans went out and got vaccinated anyway, sometimes in the face of peer pressure. They then downloaded their COVID passport, and ordered their Lateral Flow (LF) home testing kits. They did all this, because they were sold the message that if you do these things, that is your way out of restrictions, that is the route back to your seat in the stands.
But they sit at home today, once again banned from football, despite complying with everything asked of them. Those that said getting vaccinated was pointless might just have won this latest skirmish.
However, in the long term, getting vaccinated, and the booster is still the right thing to do, and it will no doubt be brought back as a requirement to attend matches in the near future.
But for now, football fans have been let down, badly. Enjoy your day at the shops.
Iain McMenemy is the chairman of Stenhousemuir FC