The FA Cup, the oldest competition in football, plays a pivotal role in the season of all clubs across the country; it is an important source of income and it provides the opportunity for lower-league ‘minnows’ to play at some of the country’s biggest grounds. The magic of the cup.

As has been well documented in recent weeks, clubs in the English Football League (EFL) and below are staring into the financial abyss. According to Jonathan Liew writing in The Guardian described how “…a group of football fans, former players, administrators and politicians sent an open letter to the government warning that many EFL and National League clubs were “unable to meet their payroll obligations for next month”, and that without government assistance English football was facing “the collapse of the league structure that we have known for over one hundred years””[1].  

Indeed, the government’s latest restrictions in the face of a resurgent Coronavirus have resulted in similar cries for help in other sports. Without ticket sales and matchday income, the entire professional structure of Rugby Union is seemingly under threat[2]; a return to the days of amateurism seems entirely plausible.  

On Tuesday 29 September 2020, in response to said government restrictions, the FA published guidelines regarding the attendance of spectators at the second round qualifying fixtures of the Emirates FA Cup. The fixtures themselves were played on Saturday 3 October 2020. 

Announcement: 

The FA announcement, which has left clubs and fans bemused, included the following measures:

1. Where an Elite Club is playing another Elite Club, the match must be played behind closed doors. 

2. Where an Elite Club is playing a Non-Elite Club, the match must be played behind closed doors if it is being played at the Elite Club’s ground; or where the match is being played at the Non-Elite Club’s ground, only spectators of the home club (i.e. the Non-Elite Club) shall be admitted to attend the match (in accordance with the latest spectator guidance).

3. Where a Non-Elite Club is playing against another Non-Elite Club, spectators of both the home and away team shall be admitted to attend the match (in accordance with the latest spectator guidance).

The full statement can be found here[3].

Elite v Non-Elite: 

First, it is imperative to understand what constitutes an “Elite Club” and what constitutes a “Non-Elite Club”. 

An Elite Club is one that competes in Step 1 (National League) and Step 2 (National League North and National League South) of the FA National League System (and above). Examples include Manchester City FC, Derby County FC, Curzon Ashton FC and Dulwich Hamlet FC.   

A Non-Elite Club, on the other hand, is one that competes in Step 3 or below of the FA National League System. Examples include Matlock Town FC, Radcliffe FC and Sevenoaks Town FC.  

Comment: 

It is the author’s view that the, while the distinction between Elite and Non-Elite clubs pre-dates Coronavirus, the use of this distinction in the case of the second-round qualifying fixtures is arbitrary. Why is it that, as it stands, fans of two different Non-Elite Clubs can attend a match when fans of an Elite Club cannot do so? 

The rationale behind this is surely a financial one: clubs operating in Step 3 and below need more urgent financial support than their counterparts operating in Step 2 and above. This seems to make sense when comparing Manchester United FC with Matlock Town FC. However, the distinction is not so clear when comparing, say, Dulwich Hamlet FC with Matlock Town FC. In fact, remove the teams in the Premier League (benefitting from numerous sponsorship deals and TV income) and the vast majority of clubs are in dire need of a cash.  The financial hardship currently being experienced by clubs at all levels is perhaps best demonstrated by Manchester United recently attributing an estimated £70 million loss directly to the pandemic[4].

Another rationale behind this move by the FA and the government may be that the Coronavirus can differentiate between supporters of Elite Clubs and supporters of Non-Elite Clubs. It suggests that the virus is only interested in infecting the former with, perhaps, the hardship of following a Non-Elite Club offering some form of toughness or even immunity.

In this respect, the decision taken by the FA is akin to the recent government decision to prevent pubs from operating beyond 10pm. Indeed, social media was awash with jokes suggesting that the Coronavirus is completely inactive or ineffective before this time.  Memes depicting a disappointed and stunned Coronavirus turning up at the pub at 10pm on the dot abounded.  

A statement made by Corinthian-Casuals FC (a club in Step 3) made light of the situation stating, “As the coronavirus is clearly clever enough to differentiate between the supporters of Step 2 and Step 3 clubs, in their wisdom, supporters of National League clubs – which include Dulwich Hamlet – are banned from spectating.” The statement described the rule as “baffling” before going on to say that tickets will be available to Corinthian-Casual FC supporters and neutral supporters only[5].  

The fact, then, that Non-Elite Clubs can market tickets to “neutral” supporters is surely cause for concern for the FA. While the FA’s statement does indeed state that “Both clubs shall ensure that spectators of the visiting club are not in attendance at the match”, what is to stop a visiting supporter of an Elite Club posing as a neutral in order to buy a ticket to watch his/her club play against a Non-Elite Club? 

The task of rooting out visiting supporters posing as neutrals is not only an impossible one, it is also an undesirable one: a Non-Elite Club turning away such imposters will result in diminished ticket sales and lower overall matchday revenue. In the current climate, this does not seem a viable option.   

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between controlling the virus and allowing football clubs to start benefitting from matchday revenue again. It is the author’s view that the real issue is including Premier League football clubs (like Manchester City FC and Chelsea FC) and National League football clubs (like Curzon Ashton FC and Dulwich Hamlet FC) in the same “Elite Club” category. The difference between these clubs is, with respect, enormous.  

Moving forwards: 

The third qualifying round of the FA Cup took place on Tuesday 13 October. On Thursday 8 October, the FA released another statement concerning attendance at the forthcoming fixtures. The position remained completely unchanged[6].

The fourth qualifying round fixtures are due to be played on 24-26October. The FA is, at the time of writing, yet to make a statement regarding spectators attending those fixtures. However, with parts of England moving into ‘Tier 3’ lockdown, together with a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in Wales, it seems impossible that the position will be altered.

In spite of this, support for allowing fans to attend fixtures at all levels is gaining momentum. A petition, created at the end of September, has garnered over 198,000 signatures at the time of writing[7]. Many clubs – ranging from Manchester United to Shrewsbury Town – are using the #LetFansIn in order to show their support[8][9]. Many well-known sports organisations, such as the EFL and TalkSport are doing the same[10][11].

The vast majority of football clubs are currently in desperate financial need. Introducing arbitrary and unenforceable rules regarding spectators is a sure-fire way to further sour the mood and exacerbate clubs’ plight.


George Cottle (LinkedIn)

George Cottle trained at Mishcon de Reya LLP and qualified in England and Wales in September 2020. He is an avid football fan (despite following West Ham United all of his life) and enjoys the odd kick-about when his hamstrings/knees/calves allow it…

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