In England, shifting virus rules close doors one day and open them the next
By Rory Smith
There were two soccer games played over the weekend at Hayes Lane, a neat, compact stadium in a quiet corner of southeast London. The first, on Saturday afternoon, played out in the pin-drop silence that characterizes sports amid the pandemic. Just as they are in the Premier League, fans were barred from attending when Bromley FC — the team that owns the place — faced Torquay United in English soccer’s fifth tier.
On Sunday, it was the turn of Hayes Lane’s other occupant, Cray Wanderers, to play. Cray sits a couple of divisions below Bromley, its landlord for more than two decades. Most years, its games attract only a couple of hundred fans.
“We are the oldest club in London,” said Sam Wright, its chief executive. “We might have the oldest fans, too.”
Wright had been expecting this particular weekend to be different. With no Premier League games on television, thanks to an international break, he had been hoping for as many as 500 fans to come down. In the end, the crowd numbered just 357: more than Cray might normally have attracted, but still, as Wright said, “rather disappointing.”
Still, that two games in the same sport might be held on the same weekend, in the same stadium, and under disparate regulations is indicative of the confusing — and often contradictory — labyrinth of rules and restrictions that has marked Britain’s attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
After a summer in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged Britons to “eat out to help out” the ailing hospitality sector, the government has had a complete turnabout in recent weeks. Last month, after weeks of telling office workers it was time to resume their daily commutes, the government reversed course, instructing them instead to continue to work from home wherever possible. Then, after first ordering pubs nationwide to close an hour earlier than normal, the government on Monday ordered them to close completely in Liverpool, the city deemed at the highest risk of coronavirus spread.
As recently as last week, Johnson had encouraged people to go to the cinema to stave off job losses. This week, he introduced a new three-tiered system of localized lockdowns, with several cities — mostly in the north of England — now governed by stringent limits on socializing, and some businesses ordered to close completely.
At the same time, several indoor arts venues in London — including the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and O2 Arena — have announced plans to reopen this winter in front of socially distanced audiences. Yet watching sporting events in large, outdoor venues remains banned.
Presently, the rules run like this: All so-called elite games must be held without fans. Elite, in this sense, applies to the top six tiers of the sport, from the glamorous, cosseted world of the Premier League all the way down to the National League North and South, divisions stocked with a mix of professionalized and semiprofessional teams.
Below that, in the squat, sprawling reaches of nonleague soccer, fans are permitted. But even then, how many of them are allowed varies from league to league. In some cases, there is a cap of 350. In others, it rises as high as 600. Those capacities are not related to local rates of virus infections or the severity of regional lockdowns, but instead on a one-size-fits-all formula based on the size of the stadiums in each league.
Things become even more complex when teams from different leagues and levels meet, as they do in the early rounds of the FA Cup. When a team that qualifies as elite is at home, no fans are permitted. If a nonelite team is hosting an elite team, only home fans are allowed. If two nonelite teams play each other, home and away fans can attend.
As a statement from one team, Corinthian Casuals, made clear, the regulations give the impression that “the coronavirus is clever enough to distinguish” between fans of different sides.
The primary problem with the web of rules and diktats, though, is all the holes in it. Jeff Hutton, the general manager of Bromley — condemned to play without fans — said his club was focusing on how to stanch the financial damage from playing in an empty stadium. “It costs us to get the game on, to manage a livestream, as well as to pay the players,” he said. The British government has promised grants to help clubs like Bromley survive — several Premier League powerhouses recently floated a plan of their own — but the money has yet to appear.
At the same time and in the same place, Cray is having a sudden attendance boom.
“We’re the highest level you can watch at the moment,” Wright said. “On a day like Sunday, when there is no Premier League on television, we’re hoping we can be quite a big draw.
“It seems strange to say it, given the situation, but it is helpful for us as a club.”
And at a time when millions of fans are unable to watch their clubs play in person — but have been told to go to the cinema and perhaps buy a ticket for the Royal Albert Hall, too — there are plenty of teams riding the same wave as Cray.
In southwest London, Corinthian Casuals have noticed an upturn in their crowds since their season started last month, aided by fans of larger teams taking the only chance they have to watch live soccer in person. “We have had fans of teams like Brentford and Fulham coming down,” one club official said. “We’ve definitely noticed a trend in that direction.”
In the city’s northeast, Walthamstow FC has had its highest attendances “for 30 years,” said Andrzej Perkins, the club’s communications manager.
“We won’t keep hitting 300 every game, but it has been incredible for us,” he said. “We have had people coming to their first-ever football game. It’s local, it’s outdoors, you can spread out, and there isn’t much else to do.”
Keith Trudgeon, the communications manager at Stalybridge Celtic, a nonleague stalwart based near Manchester, confirmed that his team, too, is “above last season’s average.” But he said the effect has not been quite as pronounced as it might have been because there are simply so many places to watch lower-league soccer in the area.
“This is a bit of a hotbed,” Trudgeon said. “There are five nonleague teams on Tameside, so people have a choice.” Only one of them, Curzon Ashton, is missing out: It qualifies as an elite team, so is not permitted to host fans at all.
Trudgeon, like many, is confounded by the rules. Stalybridge has the largest stadium in its league and he is adamant the club could safely welcome more fans than are currently permitted.
“Most grounds at this level are open access, with open stands,” he said. “There are plenty of teams who could have games with a thousand people socially distanced and are not allowed to, and yet the cinemas are open. It’s nonsense.”
It is a view shared across England’s soccer landscape. This week, the game’s various authorities — including the Premier League and the Football Association, which governs the sport in England — started a petition to encourage the government to relax its rules and allow fans back into elite games, too, as has happened in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
They believe soccer, and sports more broadly, is being held back while other sectors are permitted to reopen, and that the rules, as they stand, make little sense.
A story from Walthamstow, perhaps, lends weight to that argument. “We had some police officers appear at one of our home games,” Perkins said. The officers had received reports that soccer fans had been spotted gathering in greater numbers than allowed in the neighborhood.
Fearing the fans might be heading to watch Leyton Orient, the nearest “elite” team, they were dispatched to investigate. That, after all, would have been illegal.
“But when they realized they were coming to watch us, they told us it was fine,” Perkins said. “They looked around and told us we were doing a good job making sure everyone was social distancing.”