FOOTBALL fans will be back in stadiums next Wednesday — but thousands are still set to be locked out.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden yesterday confirmed the lifting of the national ban from December 2.
The announcement is a potential lifeline for clubs in Leagues One and Two, the National League, rugby union and horse racing.
Grounds have been empty since the start of the first Covid-19 lockdown back in March.
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Outdoor gates are to be capped at just 4,000 — and even that depends on which tier a club’s locality is in.
Dowden explained clubs in Tier One areas, where Covid restrictions are the least severe, will be allowed 50 per cent of their capacity up to that 4,000 maximum.
Those in Tier Two will be restricted to 2,000 or 50 per cent — again, whichever is the lower figure — but clubs in Tier Three remain empty.
Tiers are set to be announced on Thursday but, based on those before this latest lockdown, the only Prem clubs to be allowed the full 4,000 fans will be Brighton and Southampton.
The South coast rivals are due to play each other on the weekend of December 5, the first round of action after the rules relax.
And 22 of the EFL’s 69 English clubs would also make the grade.
It leaves clubs having to ballot season-ticket holders to decide who gets in — with giant Tier 2 stadiums at Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Newcastle restricted to one fan for every 30 seats.
Clubs know they will face criticism if they put corporate fans ahead of normal match-goers while some may question whether it is cost-efficient — it is understood Wembley needs crowds of 10,000 at events to break even.
Many sides in the North will have to continue to play in empty stadiums, with strict Tier 3 restrictions expected to remain in place.
Based on those previous tiers a whopping SEVEN Prem clubs, and 20 in the EFL — including top-flight giants Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City — will still NOT be allowed any fans.
Burnley’s Turf Moor is another that will remain shut and boss Sean Dyche said: “It is a start point.
“Even if it is limited numbers it brings that feel and that connection back. Hopefully it will build quickly after that. We have missed our fans.”
But Salford owner Gary Neville said: “So some clubs will have fans backing them in home fixtures and others will have empty stadiums with no fans. Unfair competition or not?”
A Premier League statement added: “Fans have been greatly missed and we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement regarding the return of supporters for the first time since March, albeit at small numbers.
“Our ambition remains to work with Government to increase attendance to more substantial levels.
“Until this can be done, many fans will be unable to attend games and our clubs will continue to operate matches at a financial loss.”
Only home fans will be allowed in, with clubs under orders to impose strict social distancing.
It is possible clubs may require fans to have a “Covid passport” and proof they are free of infection, although that is not confirmed.
Dowden, who also announced grassroots and kids’ sport can return, said: “I’m delighted we are able to get the turnstiles turning sooner than expected, taking a cautious approach.
“I’m confident sports will take every step to ensure fans are safe, and fans will play their part and look out for each other until we can safely get everyone back in.”
EFL bosses are ready to switch next week’s midweek fixture list wholesale to Wednesday to get some fans through the door.
An EFL spokesman said: “We look forward to the reopening of some stadiums as we finally welcome back fans after eight long months away.
“It is an important step in achieving a return to normal, alongside it being crucial to addressing the significant revenue gap left by a lack of spectators and other revenue streams as a result of the pandemic.”
Despite the sense of frustration at the limited numbers, the Football Supporters Association said: “For many lower-league and non-league clubs in particular, getting paying fans in safely is critical to survival.”
Indoor arenas will have a limit of 1,000 — a boost for boxing and darts.
And the news opens the way for 1,000 fans to see Anthony Joshua defend his WBA, IBF and WBO titles against Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev at The O2 on December 12.
Up to 1,000 fans could attend the PDC World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace in late December, with Twickenham able to let 2,000 in for the likely Autumn Nations Cup final between England and France and crowds would also return at Premiership rugby fixtures.
Kempton will be able to admit punters for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
Restrictions will be a blow for bigger football clubs who normally get five figure gates.
But for a number of smaller clubs, the re-opening, even on a reduced scale, of their main income stream will be a massive boost.
Many clubs in the lower leagues have been on the verge of going out of business, with bail outs having already been required to keep them going.
Prem clubs, who were still awaiting details, will be less impressed.
FIRST ROUND OF PREMIER LEAGUE FIXTURES AFTER RULE CHANGE
THE first round of Premier League fixtures after the change of rules on December 2 will be over the weekend of December 5/6.
Exact kick-off times and dates have yet to be confirmed.
Aston Villa vs Newcastle United
Brighton vs Southampton
Burnley vs Everton
Chelsea vs Leeds United
Liverpool vs Wolves
Manchester City vs Fulham
Sheffield United vs Leicester City
Tottenham vs Arsenal
West Brom vs Crystal Palace
West Ham vs Manchester United
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy announced earlier today that his club face a £150m loss for this season if fans remain shut out for the entire campaign.
But allowing just 2,000 fans in Tottenham’s 62,000-capacity stadium might make it more expensive to re-open than to keep the ground shut out until that maximum attendance number is bigger.
Club chiefs have been been begging for a change of Government stance since the initial lockdown in March.
Trials of up to 2,000 supporters took place earlier in the autumn ahead of a potential October 2 national roll-out.
But that was canned as the second wave of the virus hit, before the ongoing second lockdown began earlier this month.
Now it seems the Government is keen to show that a return to “normality” is possible, and allowing fans back into sporting events will be a significant milestone.
Nevertheless, clubs are in the dark over exactly what it will mean and are scrambling for as much information as possible.
But for fans and clubs in the lower tiers, as well as the National League, the news will be a genuine lifeline and perhaps the key to their financial survival.
Premier League chiefs are also hoping that the rollout of mass tests will mean that people can get back to the beautiful game in the near future.
New rapid result tests – which provide a result in under 30 minutes – could be taken by fans on the day before they are allowed in.
They could show proof of their negative test and be allowed to sit in the stands.
The rapid result tests have been piloted in Liverpool, and given to people with symptoms and without to try and track down cases of the virus.
They will be expanded across the nation to try and crack down on asymptomatic cases and isolate them.
The quicker tests are also expected to be used to scrap the isolation period too, it was reported today.
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People who were close contacts of a positive Covid case will be offered daily testing, which if it is negative will allow the person to continue life as normal.
Only if it’s positive will they have to self-isolate, meaning people can ditch 14 days of staying at home.
The idea is being trialled in Liverpool and will be rolled out to the NHS and the rest of the nation in the new year if it’s successful.