MARTIN SAMUEL: Royal Albert Hall reopens but football clubs are abused

MARTIN SAMUEL: The Royal Albert Hall reopens while our football clubs are used and abused… teams and their supporters have been played by this Government

  • The Government have used and abused our football clubs and their supporters 
  • The Royal Albert Hall reopened and will welcome back 56.9 per cent of capacity
  • Football clubs have been prevented from allowing in half that amount outside 
  • Teams have had no luck and plans to bring back fans have been delayed

The notice says proudly: ‘Welcome to the Royal Albert Hall. We’re back for Christmas.’

Indeed they are. Back with the Royal Choral Society on December 9, Guy Barker’s Big Band on December 11, an Orchestral Adventure on December 13, Handel’s Messiah on December 15, plus four days of carols and The Nutcracker post-Christmas.

‘There will be a maximum of 3,000 audience members at any one performance,’ the RAH explain, ‘in addition to around 100 members of front of house, security and catering staff. Our usual capacity is 5,272, staff excluded.’

Football clubs and their supporters have been played by this Government during the pandemic

The Royal Albert Hall has reopened but clubs aren’t allowed any form of capacity at grounds

So, that’s 56.9 per cent of standard capacity, at an indoor venue. And football clubs cannot have, say, half that outdoors? Is it any wonder the fragile alliance between sport and Government over Covid-19 measures is on the brink of collapse?

The treatment of the arts – or what is perceived as high art, at least – versus the naked manipulation of emotions around sport is a disgrace. The clubs, and supporters, have been played by this government. Used, when they wanted the nation sated during lockdown, and abused whenever they wanted to score cheap points to boost their fading popularity. Footballers’ salaries came first, then football clubs themselves, the Premier League portrayed as selfish and heartless by refusing to add the EFL’s losses to their own.

A compromise would be a roadmap for the slow reintroduction of crowds, something the Royal Albert Hall have clearly been able to achieve because they are selling in October for December events. And good for them. We must all hope it goes swimmingly.

Boris Johnson had brought a halt to any pilot events due to a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections

Yet football has had no such luck. October was the target for gates to partially open, and plans had been laid, costs incurred, ready to facilitate that. Then the scheme was scrapped at short notice in a panic with no secondary course of action, after the second wave.

So here’s where we are. At the moment, it is possible to visit Chepstow racetrack to attend a car boot sale, as hundreds did last Sunday, but not to watch horses racing. It is possible to go to the indoor clubhouse at Wealdstone Football Club and watch Saturday’s National League game with Chesterfield on live stream, but not to attend the actual match, socially distanced and in the open air, which is taking place a matter of yards away.

Fans of Corinthian Casuals can see their FA Cup second qualifying round tie on Saturday, fans of their opponents, Dulwich Hamlet cannot. And while the Royal Albert Hall can operate at 56.9 per cent of capacity indoors, for football clubs with outdoor arenas anything up to 14 times as big the capacity is set at nought.

Yet nobody, not even Ed Woodward, is asking for Manchester United to seat 43,243 fans – which would represent 56.9 per cent of capacity – at present. Football has spoken of starting out with far smaller numbers, testing the water at 20 per cent, maybe a third to begin with.

Not even Manchester United chief Ed Woodward is asking for large crowds to be allowed in

A crowd of 20 per cent at Old Trafford would equate to 15,200 in a 76,000 capacity stadium. At Anfield it would work out as 10,814. Not much, but a start, And lower down the leagues, a godsend.

What would a crowd of 1,090 do for Accrington Stanley given that it is just 20 per cent of capacity at Wham Stadium, yet 38 per cent of their gate, pre-lockdown?

A fifth of capacity at Bolton Wanderers is 5,744, which is almost exactly 50 per cent of their average gate last season. These numbers are potentially life- saving right now.

The difference in policy towards the RAH also exposes another lie: that the reason for keeping crowds away from sport is to suppress numbers on public transport. For unless several thousand new parking spaces have suddenly popped up in the London Borough of Westminster – and believe me, they haven’t – the Royal Albert Hall is without doubt a public transport destination.

And if 3,000 on the Tube isn’t a problem, why would 3,687 people at Loftus Road watching Queens Park Rangers in the open air be any different?

The amount of people using the Tube network contrasts the empty Loftus Road on matchdays

If football’s communal singing is the issue, then what of the Royal Choral Society and those Christmas carols?

If football’s communal celebrations are a risk, won’t they also happen in the Wealdstone clubhouse, and the pubs just the same?

As Handel’s Messiah joins grouse shooting among Britain’s officially endorsed recreations, it is almost as if this Government are looking after their own constituents.

Heaven knows what they will make of it across the Red Wall, when the time comes.

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