When might fans be able to return to Carrow Road again?

PUBLISHED: 17:34 07 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:52 08 July 2020

The home fans celebrate victory at the end of the Premier League match at Carrow Road, Norwich
Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The home fans celebrate victory at the end of the Premier League match at Carrow Road, Norwich Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Paul Chesterton

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease across the country, when might Norwich City fans start to be able to watch their team at Carrow Road again? Reporter David Hannant investigates.

It’s an old saying that football clubs are nothing without their fans, and given Norwich City’s woeful behind closed doors record since Project Restart began, that certainly seems to ring true for the Carrow Road club.

But could it be that fans may be able to start to return to watch their beloved Canaries sooner than they may have expected?

With Covid-19 rates falling, some clubs in the UK are starting to explore the ‘road map’ to letting supporters back into grounds - albeit at a lower capacity than normal.

MORE: Robin Sainty: ‘Football without fans simply isn’t football’

The five substitutes rule looks set to continue next season. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd.The five substitutes rule looks set to continue next season. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd.

North of the border, in Scotland, one team has already made its intentions clear, with Aberdeen setting out an ambition to be able to welcome at least a small proportion of their fanbase back inside the Pittodrie from September.

The Dons are hopeful they will be able to allow around 7,500 fans inside the stadium, which has a capacity of just over 20,000.

A statement from the club said: “With the opening league game only four weeks away, we are now making preparations for matches at Pittodrie both behind closed doors and with a reduced capacity, initially allowing access for 7,500 season ticket holders, assuming one metre social distancing.”

Caution urged

Pink Un columnist Robin SaintyPink Un columnist Robin Sainty

However, UEA medical professor Paul Hunter issued some words of caution for supporters expecting a Carrow Road return for the start of the 2020/21 season.

He explained that it is not actually during the game that people would be most at risk of being infected - but rather travelling to and from matches.

Prof Hunter said: “Outdoors the risk of infection is generally much lower and when you are on the terraces you are sitting in open air. Providing you are able to keep more than a metre away from other people its generally quite low risk - certainly if you maintain distance.

“However the big issue really is going to be before and after the games - some football fans do tend to take in drinks before the game so the mix of the passion of the game and alcohol could make people less likely to follow guidelines and stay apart.

Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Photo: UEAPaul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Photo: UEA

“It would also require a great deal of crowd management to make it safe for people to get in and out of the grounds, go to the toilets at half-time or buy pies. These types of things need thorough planning so it is difficult to say quite how long it would take before this could happen.

“I do think with the right organisation though it could even be done safely at the moment, with the right planning and grounds perhaps at 25pc capacity to allow distance to be kept.”

What do the fans think?

Should such a move be considered, with the Canaries having considerably more season ticket holders - around 20,000 - it would pose a real quandary to the top brass at Carrow Road.

David Freezer in the press box at Emirates Stadium behind the Norwich City substitutes Picture: Jason Dawson/JasonpixDavid Freezer in the press box at Emirates Stadium behind the Norwich City substitutes Picture: Jason Dawson/Jasonpix

This is a difficulty acknowledged by Robin Sainty, chairman of supporters’ group the Canaries Trust.

He said: “Something I feel the club may be very wary of is the prospect of having to tell some season ticket holders they can come to certain games and others they can not. When we have 20,000 season ticket holders, how can you select who goes in and who doesn’t?

“The Trust certainly feels that it goes without saying that this is a very complex situation. Of course now the season has started people are going to be thinking about when they can come back.

“Broadcasters must also be itching for fans to return to the grounds as I’m sure they can see the product they is receiving is not a patch on what it is like with fans there.

“I think the fans are fairly split on this - I’m sure younger fans are absolutely champing at the bit, however other people might be a little more cautious.

“Even if you manage to get people back in the grounds and distance them there will always be pinch points - the concourse, the turnstiles and the toilets. It is a really difficult one.”

What are the grounds like without supporters?

Norwich City reporter David Freezer, who is permitted into the ground as part of media coverage of the games, said: “I’ve covered plenty of youth games at Carrow Road during my seven years doing this job, so the hollow experience of a nearly empty stadium hasn’t come as a total shock to the system, but this is the Premier League - with millions of pounds riding on the outcome of games.

“You just cannot recreate the buzz of a packed stadium. Even if the fake crowd noise which has been used for TV coverage was piped into the stadium, it would just feel artificial and almost patronising.

“For example, City have played out a crowd recording of On The Ball City at the start of each half, as you would expect, but then as that noise ends and the quiet begins, it just makes the lack of fans even more conspicuous.

“Norwich have dressed the Carrow Road stands with some great banners and provided as much colour and vibrancy as possible, but there is no way of replicating a real atmosphere.”

What’s happening elsewhere?

The first nation to allow fans back into the grounds was Hungary, with the government giving the green light on May 27. On this date, Hungary experienced 22 new Covid-19 cases and six deaths, with 1,431 active cases nationwide.

The return was done in two phases, with clubs initially allowed to admit 25pc of their capacity, with fans separated by three seats.

Gergely Marosi, a freelance football writer based in Hungary, said initially atmospheres remained “fairly muted” - but it was still an improvement on the “hollow” feeling of empty stadiums.

He added: “The return was a bit muted, but with a few hundred fans already it was better than nothing.”

However, he added that some difficulty was being experienced keeping the most devoted fans - or, ultras - apart from one another.

He said: “Each club could make up their own rules, so it was up to them to regulate entry. There is a strict zone policy in the stadia; anybody entering the sports zone should have a fresh negative test. This includes players, coaching and medical staff, security, admin staff and a minimal television production crew.”

On June 3, the Hungarian Cup final between Honved and Mezokovesd was contested in the Puskas Arena - the country’s 67,215 capacity national stadium - in front of 10,000 supporters.

Mr Marosi said: “It went relatively okay, apart from ultras not keeping distance and high fiving with players and such. The players went out to celebrate the cup win which made it very difficult to keep order.”

On June 18, the Hungarian government agreed to lift all restrictions on fans attending games, with the largest attendance coming on June 20, in the derby between Ferencváros and Újpest, which saw 15,727 fans watch the game in a 20,000 seater stadium.

It was also announced on Monday evening that the final fixture of the Danish league season will be played in front of more than 10,000 fans, following a successful trial of matches in front of 3,000 spectators.

As far as when Norwich City can allow fans back into Carrow Road though, the decision will rest solely in the hands of either the English Football League or the Premier League, depending on where the club is competing next season.

The club, who didn’t want to formally comment when asked about the issue, says it is currently working to a very strict protocol for matchdays, tying its hands until either league says otherwise.

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