Nick Abbot 10pm - 1am
Supporters to attend English professional football matches for first time since March
16 September 2020, 14:37 | Updated: 16 September 2020, 14:41
Supporters will attend English professional football matches for the first time since March this weekend after the EFL was given the go-ahead to play matches in front of up to 1,000 spectators each.
The games are part of the government's pilot event programme to reintroduce spectators to venues on a socially-distanced basis amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The fixtures in question are Middlesbrough v Bournemouth and Norwich v Preston in the Championship, Blackpool v Swindon, Charlton v Doncaster, Shrewsbury v Northampton and Hull v Crewe in League One and Forest Green Rovers v Bradford, Carlisle v Southend and Morecambe v Cambridge in League Two.
EFL clubs are still hoping that supporters will be able to return more widely from October 1, but the government is reviewing that date after a spike in coronavirus cases.
EFL chairman Rick Parry said: "It's encouraging that we are in a position to move forward with the next phase of the pilot programme and give a small number of our clubs the opportunity to welcome back up to 1,000 fans this week.
"The health and wellbeing of supporters and their wider communities remains the priority, but as we showed at Cambridge, social distancing can be applied safely. By extending across more EFL clubs we hope to further demonstrate that the measures developed can allow fans to return in greater numbers from as early as next month.
"The requirement to welcome spectators back through turnstiles has not diminished in any way, the financial challenges facing EFL clubs have been explained on numerous occasions, they are substantial and a problem that requires immediate solutions."
It is understood clubs situated in communities which are currently under local lockdowns were excluded from applying to be part of the pilot matches.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, said: "I know that many fans are eager to return to football and that jobs depend on this too, so fans will welcome news that the EFL will be running number-capped, Covid-secure and socially-distanced pilots this weekend.
"This will help us build the evidence base to see how we can return fans safely in greater numbers as soon as it is safe to do so."
Luton Town FC declined to participate in this weekend's pilot because of the short notice given.
They said that "to request clubs to offer and then not back up quickly, knowing there is such little time to prepare, is very disappointing and we are sorry to disappoint supporters who may have raised hopes of attending Saturday’s match."
In a statement, the club said: "Luton Town Football Club would like to clarify the situation with regards to the ‘return of fans’ pilot programme starting this weekend.
"On Tuesday at around midday, having received an email from the EFL asking for clubs to volunteer to take part, we put ourselves forward.
"We responded within the hour because, like many clubs, we are desperate to have our supporters back inside Kenilworth Road.
"To stage a game with supporters here would take a lot of preparation time, and unfortunately, despite asking again from very early this morning, we had heard nothing from the League until a few minutes before they issued their statement stating that we were one of the clubs taking part.
"Sadly, this does not give us enough time to get ready so we are unable to host spectators here for the Derby match.
"We understand that the EFL are beholden to DCMS, but to request clubs to offer and then not back up quickly, knowing there is such little time to prepare, is very disappointing and we are sorry to disappoint supporters who may have raised hopes of attending Saturday’s match.
"We remain committed to working with the EFL, DCMS, SGSA and local authority to getting our wonderful supporters back inside the Kenny as soon as is safely possible."