From stewards to toilets: how football clubs are preparing for fans’ return


Cambridge chairman Ian Mather, who hopes to have 2,000 fans at their next home game, says clubs have a lot to consider

Earlier this year, Cambridge volunteered their Abbey Stadium as a test site for experts to assess the challenges of getting fans back into grounds.

“We worked some of it out for ourselves but there were other parts that were really helpful, like actually measuring the seats,” says the chairman, Ian Mather. “If you go into the executive area the seats are half a metre wide. In other areas they’re 450mm. So in the exec area you’ve got to leave one seat spare but in another you’ve got to leave two. That’s a massive detail but you wouldn’t know unless you physically measured them.”

Mather says his club’s work with Movement Technologies, which was commissioned by the EFL to conduct the research in the summer, has put them in a good position for the return of supporters. On Wednesday they expect to crowd of 2,000 for their League Two game against Mansfield.

“I think there will be some clubs and this is no disrespect to any of them, who will have a lot of work to think through,” Mather says. “You get down into really granular detail about painting arrows on the floor of the stadium to show direction of flow. You need a policy to show how you’re going to get fans in and out. You need to get the right number of stewards in to be able to manage that. You need to manage things like toilets because, certainly in older stadiums like ours, entrances are too narrow so you can’t do social distancing. It will take too long for people to go to the loo at half-time, so we buy portable toilets. All of that detail takes a lot of thinking about.”

We’re going to lose money on this, I can guarantee it

Like most clubs in the lower leagues, Mather does not expect Cambridge to make any money from the return of crowds. “We’re going to lose money on this, I can guarantee it,” he says but has no doubt the outlay and the hard work is worth it.

“We will allocate tickets to all our 1,535 season ticket holders,” he says. “These are people who’ve bought a season ticket not knowing when we’d start again with fans. Some bought the tickets even before we knew we’d start again at all. So they’re an incredibly loyal bunch. They will definitely be coming in.

“What we will be saying to season-ticket holders though is: ‘If you can’t come, for whatever reason, let’s not waste a space.’ If our capacity is 2,000 we want 2,000 bodies in the stadium, we don’t want to waste anything. I think our fans will cooperate with that.”

For Dale Vince, the owner of Forest Green Rovers, there is a similar philosophy at work. The club ran a pilot in September of 1,000 fans, it went smoothly and they anticipate letting in a similar number at their first home game after lockdown, which could be against Cambridge on 12 December.

“From our perspective it’s fairly straightforward,” Vince says. “There’s an economic challenge that I’m hearing from a lot of other clubs, about the number of extra people they need to get in just to break even. We’ve not made that calculation ourselves. We’ll just let back in as many fans as we’re allowed because they’re missing. We’ll crunch the numbers later and see how it goes.”

Vince is equally sanguine about the changes needed to make the New Lawn Stadium pandemic-proof, pointing to a “relatively modern” e-ticketing system at the club as one useful tool. But the entrepreneur famous for bringing ecological principles to league football is not relaxed about the way government has treated the game during this crisis.

A pointer to the goverment’s approach, Vince says, is the ruling that fans must wear masks while sitting in open-air stands. “It stands in clear contrast to rules for hospitality, pubs, restaurants, theatres,” he says.

“People were indoors sat next to each other with no masks on. We’re outdoors with masks on and we’re still having to have a 1m halo around people that you won’t find indoors, you won’t find it on the high street, in a shop or in the pub or a restaurant. It just doesn’t happen. I do think it’s bonkers. What is it about football that the government don’t get?”