Covid-19 decimated our game in the 2019/20 season, leaving points per game to relegate Tranmere, helping to promote Wycombe and leave others crying foul.
From next week, that disparity will be back with a vengeance as some clubs can welcome supporters into stadiums, whilst others cannot. As I’m sure you already know by now, Lincolnshire, as a whole, has been placed in tier 3, meaning that until December 16th at least, there will be no supporters back at Sincil Bank. Indeed, those headline figures of up to 4,000 supporters going back were essentially people-pleasing fiction, as the only areas to be in tier one are those without elite football clubs, Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly.
In our league, 12 of the 24 teams will be permitted to have fans in attendance, namely Wimbledon, Charlton, Crewe, Ipswich, MK Dons, Northampton, Oxford, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Swindon Town. Only one of those teams affects us, that being Shrewsbury in the EFL Trophy. The first away League One game we may see fans in the stadium is Northampton on 19th December, with Wimbledon, Shrewsbury and Portsmouth all to come after the new year.
Of course, the tiers are subject to change, so we may even see a return to fans at Sincil Bank for the visit of Burton Albion on Boxing Day, which would be rather ironic given they were the very last visitors to the ground. That would hinge on our county being hauled out of the bag in the Covid-19 lottery happening every two weeks from now on, hosted by the comedy double act of Johnson and Hancock (Jancock anyone? No?)
I understand that we want fans back in the ground across the country and there may not have been another way, but knowing that some clubs will have home supporters cheering them on, whilst other clubs cannot, does stick in the throat a bit. Having supporters is a big boost to players and given that there will be no away fans, obviously, it means some very partisan trips for some clubs with the benefit at their home ground. Bristol Rovers will suffer in the first instance, playing away at Charlton and Wimbledon with fans in the ground – the Wimbledon game being especially tough as it will be the first back at Plough Lane with paying customers. Burton have it tough too, facing both Ipswich and MK Dons, whilst Fleetwood also have two trips to grounds which can admit supporters.
I applaud the return of supporters and can offer no alternative to the rules, other than a blanket approach to football matches. Genuinely, in the grand scheme of things, how can it be safer to go to a gym every night with different groups of people there, than sitting in a football ground, no matter what tier your area is in? How can it not be safe to go to a football ground in a tier 3 area wearing a mask and taking precautions, but going to the supermarket, or school, or college is fine?
Last season, the Football League was unfair, especially in League One. Some teams played Bolton’s kids, others did not. Some teams got long breaks thanks to Bolton and Bury’s troubles, others had to play twice a week for what seemed like forever. Ultimately a team was relegated without actually being one of the worst three teams in the division over 46 games. I guess I shouted that was the ‘only fair way’ back then and have to swallow that down now, but this is not about clubs surviving, it is about people surviving. Not just staying clear of Covid, but mentally too. I think it cruel that they dropped headlines of a possible return, knowing full well a huge section of the country could not.
This year was always going to be the same as the last one to a degree, anyone playing away at an empty Stadium of Light was going to have it easier than someone going there later in the season, but tying football into the tier system just creates disparity. Yes, I am bitter and yes, this is perhaps me only seeing one side of the coin, but Covid doesn’t stop at a county border and think ‘I can’t go across there’, just as it doesn’t knock off on December 23rd for a few days. We are told that wearing a mask, washing hands and not licking each other’s faces is a good way to steer clear of catching it, so why tie football into tiers? If it is safe for your kids to go to school in tier 3 if it is safe for my brother to go to the gym, or for people to queue outside Primark, why oh why can 2,000 supporters not file into a 10,000 capacity stadium with masks on and not rub their hands on each other in the process?
Congratulations if you are one of the areas in which football has returned (widely known as ‘the South’), it is genuinely good news that some fans will be back, I just find it hard to comprehend how one minute we’re being given hope, only for it to be cruelly snatched away. It feels like torment, bullying even, which you just don’t expect from the government.
Whatever they have said, the current lockdown does continue past December 2nd, because if something smells like a fish, looks like a fish and swims underwater, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It is still a fish.