When will crowds be able to return to watch sport in Wales? From the evidence so far it doesn’t seem as if that will be anytime soon. There’s a lot of noise but Twm Owen wonders whether much thought has been given to the issue.
The prospect of fans returning to the stands in Wales seems a long way off but beyond questions of where the Welsh rugby team will play the issue has been given little attention.
From the Welsh Rugby Union’s point of view, it’s hard to argue against staging games in England if regulations there allow fans to return and should they still be locked out in Wales due to coronavirus restrictions or reduced capacities. It could mean larger stadia than those available in Wales are needed to maximise income.
Support for professional sport in Wales was raised in the Senedd, before it closed for the summer. First Minister Mark Drakeford was asked if he would consider reducing social distancing to one metre between people, as in England, which it was suggested could allow the WRU to stage internationals in Wales.
The Labour leader said 40,000 people coming together for a match wouldn’t be consistent with the cautious approach his government has taken on coronavirus. Basically, Drakeford said he didn’t think it would be a good idea.
“The risk that that would pose to the health of those people attending, and to those people who’d have to be employed in order to allow that to happen, is simply not within the realms of what a sensible approach to dealing with this global pandemic would suggest,” he said.
Of course, if the Principality Stadium remains on stand by as a field hospital, then it won’t be staging any games this autumn but most sport in Wales doesn’t attract anything like 40,000 people through the turnstiles.
Since the First Minister was pressed on the issue, Surrey County Cricket Club has staged a friendly, this past weekend, at the Oval against Middlesex where 1,000 socially distanced spectators were admitted in a pilot to see how fans can return to watching sport.
While men’s rugby and football internationals are unlikely to be able to go ahead as we’ve previously known them in Wales for the foreseeable future, there are a host of sporting fixtures that could be staged and there’s an argument to be made they could be played with fans in attendance.
Indeed, the 1,000 spectators admitted to the Oval would be considered a more than healthy crowd in football’s JD Cymru Premier League where average attendances across the 12 clubs, in the season which was cut short due to the pandemic, was just 319 people.
County cricket is due to start this Saturday August 1 and the Welsh Government has allowed museums, galleries and cinemas to re-open and we may be allowed to sit in and eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants again from Monday.
Cricket obviously takes place outdoors and, as a Glamorgan member, Drakeford knows there is plenty of opportunity to watch cricket while social distancing at Sophia Gardens where the team is due to play its first home game, starting on August 15.
Supporters of clubs in the JD Cymru Premier are also growing frustrated with the loss of football and the lack of information on when fixtures with fans present can restart for a league heavily dependent on a small numbers of paying punters.
They are also casting envious glances at Northern Ireland where up to 500 spectators can attend this evening’s Irish Cup Final – which will be the first game in the UK to welcome fans since football returned from lockdown.
Partial crowds could be allowed to return to stadiums in Scotland, where the new football season kicks off this weekend, from September 14 and the Scottish Governmnet could allow limited test events before then.
Welsh Champions Connah’s Quay Nomads are due to start their Champions League first qualifying round on Tuesday, August 18 and later that week Barry Town will also play a one-off UEFA cup qualifier.
Bala Town and TNS (whose Park Hall home is actually in England) will also have single leg European ties in August and though the clubs will find out their opponents, and whether they have home or away ties, at the August 9 draw UEFA has already ruled all fixtures, across the continent, will be played behind closed doors.
But shouldn’t the Welsh Government and the Football Association of Wales already be looking at whether bringing fans back into Cymru Premier grounds, whenever the domestic season starts, is feasible – instead of allowing English cricket, and even snooker where up to 300 fans will be allowed inside the Crucible in Sheffield for the world championships that start today, to steal a march?
The issues aren’t as simple as you might think. For example Cardiff Met, average attendance 235 last season, could suddenly find themselves the hottest ticket in town during the current sporting drought.
The traditionally best supported teams – Caernarfon Town, who had an average of 645 at home games last season, and 872 in the previous full length season, and Barry Town, who saw around 420 fans attending home games – on the face of it could easily find plenty of room for fans to keep apart from one another.
But as supporters usually tend to huddle together clubs could have to provide extra stewards to help with social distancing. But at present it’s unclear if anyone is working up a checklist of what needs to be done for football and, in time, other sports to be played as they are supposed to be – with supporters present.
In the Senedd, Drakeford was asked about any discussions he has had with the WRU on staging rugby internationals in Wales, a direct question the First Minister side-stepped.
But football fans will want to know if the FAW has been pressing the case for opening games, at least at the Cymru Premier level, to fans.
The Senedd is due to hold some extra sittings in August but perhaps Welsh football fans have already given up on Members of the Senedd paying attention to the national league – leaving many to wonder who will will speak for them?
- This article was written before Friday afternoon’s latest announcement by the UK government that the planned pilots for some sports events to allow in a number of fans will not now go ahead.