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Lockdown lockouts – is a supporters’ return to the SoL imminent at all?

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As the deadly pandemic reemerges in the North East, Sunderland supporters’ hopes of being able to watch their team live have been set back. Nil Desperandum.

Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

As the first fans to attend professional football matches in over six months made their way home from watching Cambridge United beat Fulham’s Under-21s in the EFL Trophy this Tuesday evening, news emerged that England is to reimpose restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings of more than six people from next Monday.

Local lockdowns are already being imposed across a growing number of local authority areas in England and Wales, as cases of the deadly coronavirus have begun to rise sharply once again. This worrying news follows a hopeful period we enjoyed of gradual easing back into familiar routines, including following the ins-and-outs of our team.

And it was just getting exciting too!

Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy
It was an ‘I was there moment’ as Sunderland notched eight for the first time since the 50s. Except no-one was there.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s likely going to be a difficult winter for almost everyone, and among the many communities and businesses that will suffer a second hit are football clubs.

Season ticket holders had been looking forward to seeing football in-the-flesh once again sometime next month, with the behind closed doors games being a temporary measure. More test events like that at the Abbey Stadium on Tuesday have been planned, and there is no indication yet as to whether they will be affected and the move to get fans back will be halted. The plans being implemented at the Stadium of Light have allowed fans to register their bubble of up to six – within the new nationwide restrictions on gathers – in preparation of their return to the ground.

But with Sunderland and the surrounding areas reporting a rise in the seven-day average of number of cases, and no vaccine expected this side of Christmas, logic would suggest that if the virus is to have a winter peak it simply will not be possible to allow large groups of people, fans and additional club staff, to gather in one place safely.

While protecting the NHS and social care remains the key priority for everyone, football itself should continue as it is now throughout the autumn and winter if, that is, players and staff can maintain their discipline and stay socially distant.

The cost of the twice-weekly private testing regimes for professional football clubs has, reportedly, dropped sharply in the last few months as production capacity has been increased globally. Processing capacity remains an issue for the government, but at the minute football clubs don’t appear to be struggling with this issue.

Sunderland v Hull City - Carabao Cup First Round
Behind closed doors is something we’re going to have to put up with for a while yet, it seems
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The costs of staging games in empty stadiums may be minimal, and thousands of Sunderland fans are shelling out the EFL’s standard tenner a match for low-budget, pay-per-view streaming passes, but in League One it is match day revenue – tickets, pies, pints and programmes – that pays the wage bills.

Sunderland may be able to survive due to the scale of our fanbase and the reported impending arrival of new owners, but the same cannot be said for our competitors. Even with a salary cap, the cashflow implications would surely be too much for some smaller clubs to bear. Thankfully, both Wigan and Charlton look set for takeovers of their own, and with any luck their new owners will be willing and able to sustain them in ways that their current ones have failed so miserably to do.

The health of the rest of League One really matters. As much as we resent the outcome, last season the division was decided on points per game due to widespread fear among some of the smaller clubs that playing all of the final 13 fixtures without fans would be, for them at least, financial self-immolation.

As fear rises again, it helps to look for glimmers of hope. As Tom Greatrex of the Football Supporters Association (FSA) explained on a recent edition of the Price of Football podcast, as well as pressing for more and better live TV and streaming coverage of football, the fans’ umbrella organisation have recently launched the Sustain the Game Campaign, urging the Conservative government and the opposition parties in Parliament to live up to their manifesto commitment to run a fan-led, root-and-branch review football governance.

The return of competitive football at Sunderland is very welcome, especially after so long and after so many people in the city have suffered so much with the virus. The spectacle of watching our team play, albeit possibly only remotely, will keep us going as the nights draw in and the struggle against Covid-19 continues.

Sunderland v Everton - FA Cup Sixth Round Replay
Masks could well be mandatory when fans are allowed back in the ground
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Sunderland fans are coming together to form the new Red & White Army Supporters Trust in the weeks ahead, and supporters’ commitment to the club and the community continues to be shown through daily acts of human kindness to help the most vulnerable through the crisis.

I believe that it is also now time for us to game to come together with other fans from around the country and demand our politicians do what they said they would do less than a year ago and ensure we have a better game to return to watch in person, whenever that may be.