An hour in, I realised I had abandoned social distancing: A return to football

HOW great it was to return to a football stadium and watch a match. Admittedly, it was non-league football step three but regardless, being part of an event with 400 other people and watching live action was very stimulating.

The club did all the necessary precautionary measures: temperature checks, sanitiser at the entrance, plenty of visor-headed and high-vis clad stewards on hand and a few arrows here and there. It was instructive but not over-bearing, certainly not as intimidating as the gang of night club bouncers the club used to employ to act as “security”.

And people were pleased to be back. There was an air of lightness, of optimism and friendliness about the ground – if a certain 70s pop singer wasn’t verboten on playlists these days, the chant, “it’s good to be back, it’s good to be back” would have been playing out of the loudspeakers.

As if in response to the welcoming of fans once more to proper games, the home team obliged with five goals, their latest crop of academy defectors and lower division hopefuls playing bright, attacking football that delighted the crowd.

But one thing struck me and it should have concerned everyone in the stadium. I looked around at about 4.15pm and realised that the heat map (if there was such a thing) would have revealed a very similar distribution of bodies than any other time in the recent history of the club. In other words, social distancing appeared to have flown out of the window. Indeed, I was merely two or three feet away from the chap sitting next to me and just a yard or so from the club stalwart behind me. The chairman was barely four feet from my shoulder. Should we worry?

OK, temperatures had been checked, but a virus can hit you suddenly and can linger. It was interesting that while some people were complaining about the fact that “up north” and in Soho they had taken little notice of the lockdown and that’s why the numbers were climbing, but a beach at Scarborough a pavement café in central London and a football ground, is there really any difference?

Non-league grounds up and down the country would have been no different, so we have to ask, can clubs really control their crowds without a little bit more insistence being applied? If you cannot queue for a supermarket without precautionary geometry, how can people stand on a terrace safely? I attended a Pilates class a few days before the game and the caution of the teacher and the rest of the class was precise and an example of safety first. A football crowd expels a lot of saliva, gas, droplets and other fluids when the fans celebrate, moan, berate and cheer. I thought about that when a small droplet of spit hit my phone screen from the guy behind me.

Social distancing has been relaxed, but it is not a precise science and the instructions have been vague. Masks were in a small minority at the football ground and discipline has never been a strong point of British people, let alone football fans. A crowd cannot be trusted to adhere to the rules without some sort of guidance, therefore clubs should probably think again about how best to ensure a crowd is well distributed around a stadium that has had capacity restrictions placed upon it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening day of the season, and I will be adopting a more responsible approach to being a spectator. Throughout the lockdown, I have been cautious, but I cannot help feeling I let my guard down. But I wasn’t alone, many of us acted as if a pandemic hadn’t passed our way. Stay safe has to be the message – at home, at home games and away games!


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