Bury AFC and FC United are among a number of well-supported non league clubs fighting authorities to change protocols on fans returning to grounds.
It was on Wednesday that the Football Association released guidance on allowing supporters to return to stadiums in limited numbers below the National League North and South.
Following recommendations by the the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, each club’s limitation is to be based on the minimum stadium capacity required to enter their respective league.
Clubs will be allowed an initial 15% of their league’s minimum capacity, rising to 30% on the 1st of September.
Northern Premier League side FC United of Manchester will play in the same division having missed out on promotion due to the 2019-20 competition halting the season before becoming null and void.
They are set to face newly promoted Barrow in a pre-season friendly at their 4,400-capacity Broadhurst Park on Saturday, however because of the new guidelines, they will only be able to allowed 300 supporters into the stands – 15% of their league’s 1,950 minimum capacity.
In a statement, the club said: FC United are pleased that we are moving to a return of spectators into non-league stadiums. Like other clubs, life in non-league is one without TV revenue and little league sponsorship; we rely on spectators attending matches and spending in our bars and food outlets to generate the revenue to pay our bills.
The sudden and abrupt end to the 2019/20 season hit us hard with six home matches worth of revenue lost and our facility shut down for five months and losing all the events and functions revenue which supplements our football.
Whilst a limited return of supporters into grounds is welcome as a first step, we are disappointed that the criteria used to work out capacity has ignored an individual ground’s size, layout and ability to safely host matches. Instead we have a one size fits all approach based on the lowest capacity requirement for entry into that step of the pyramid. The new DCMS and FA guidelines will allow us an initial 15%, rising from 31st August to 30% of the minimum capacity for step 3, which is set at 1950.
For FC United this mean that like all other clubs at our level, despite our having a 4,700 capacity stadium, we will only be allowed 300 supporters initially, rising to 600 from 31st August.
To be clear, as a club we support the need to cut capacities to a level where supporters can safely watch, adhering to government guidelines on social distancing. Like all clubs we were told to produce a risk assessment by 15th August and have spent a great deal of time creating a comprehensive 14-page manual demonstrating how we will hold matches in the new Covid era with supporter, staff and player safety at the forefront of our plans.
We have consulted extensively with the experts on our stadium Safety Advisory Group which has signed off our risk assessment. We are not looking to cut any corners or take any measures which puts anyone at risk but we must question why it has been decided that our stadium size and our ability to hold matches safely has been ignored in favour of a ‘one size fits all’ approach based on the minimum capacity allowed at our level rather than the actual capacity of our ground.
Why are we restricted to the same number of supporters as a club who has a ground less than half the size of ours? Why have individual circumstances and ability to adhere to government social distancing measures been used throughout the leisure industry, in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and leisure centres but football been treated differently?
We have spoken to our league and they have confirmed to us that this approach is contrary to what the Football Association has been requesting of the DCMS with chairman Mark Harris quoted on the BBC today:
“Having fans back is a step in the right direction but we have to recognise the decision to base the numbers around the minimum capacity at each step disadvantages those clubs who have invested in their facilities and have already got independent certification for their capacity.
“We are taking this up with the FA. We need to urgently lobby for the percentages to be based around stadium capacities. The actual percentage is not the issue. The issue is what it is a percentage of.”
If 30% is deemed as the figure permitted by the DCMS for the initial return of supporters we would strongly urge that this be 30% of our actual capacity and not of a figure which bears no relation to our ability to safely deliver a match day. For us that would mean a total of around 1,400 supporters which would come close to our 1,668 average attendance from last season and give the club a fighting chance to recover.
With close to 800 season tickets already purchased by our supporters who have heeded our calls to buy early in order to help us through the current financial downturn, the new figures are below the number of tickets already sold for next season.
There have been no Premier League or EFL payments to non-league below step 2, FA Cup prize money for next season has been halved and already we have seen a number of clubs withdraw or fold, including neighbouring NPL club Droylsden FC. The non-league football pyramid is in danger and the government must allow us to safely generate the revenue we need to get through a season which will probably see postponements and extra difficulties as the pandemic continues to affect our society.
FC United have today writen to Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell asking for her support. We are coordinating with similarly affected clubs such as AFC Bury and Scarborough Athletic FC to make our voices heard and speaking to the press to explain our position.
On Saturday we are hosting our first pre-season friendly against Barrow AFC. New regulations allow for up to 300 supporters in the ground but this has come at very short notice for us as we had been working to the advice that there would be no supporters before September. We have no food, drink ready for Saturday and our SMRE bar is still operating as a food hub serving the local community and therefore won’t be accessible.
The board and management have held discussions last night and throughout today about how we can bring fans back in such low numbers and at such short notice. There is unfortunately no magic solution which will please all but equally that mustn’t stop us from trying our best, especially as we can only move to 600 supporters for the City of Liverpool match on 5th September if we have held the test event with 300 on Saturday.
We will therefore be contacting volunteers on our database who have given their time to help the club over the last 12 months to invite them to attend the match. Admission will be free of charge although there will be donation buckets if those volunteers want to donate. Unfortunately, there can be no admission for any other supporters and any turning up on the day will be turned away. Any issues may well prevent us from moving to 600 supporters for the next game on 5th September and Trafford on the 8th September.
Following a review of Saturday we will announce selling procedures for those matches next week and if things go well we hope to add one more attractive home pre-season fixture to the schedule.
For those unable to attend in person there will be live coverage of the game provided free on FCUM TV and FCUM Radio with a 12.45 ko to allow this.
Arrangements for the season will be communicated over the next couple of weeks as the situation develops.
We thank you for your patience and understanding for what is an unprecedented situation.
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Fellow league clubs such as South Shields and Scarborough Athletic are also understood to be unhappy with the regulations.
Bury AFC, the supporter-owned phoenix club set up after Bury’s expulsion from the English Football League last season will also find it tough.
They have been allowed to start out at North West Counties Division One North level this season and have agreed a deal to groundshare with Radcliffe at the 4,000-capacity Stainton Park.
The phoenix club will be limited to only 150 during August, rising to 300 in September. But because Radcliffe play a step higher, they will be allowed to double the amount of fans admitted into the ground despite playing in the same stadium.
In a club statement, Bury AFC said: “A small but significant number of clubs will be penalised for no reason by these limits.
“These clubs bring significant revenue to other clubs through ticket sales and have invested in stadiums and infrastructure which support a community, not just a club.”