Brighton chief executive welcomes ‘psychological step’ of allowing fans back in

By Ed Elliot and Andy Sims, PA
·6 min read

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber admits the significance of allowing a limited number of fans to return to football grounds will be “more symbolic than financial” for Premier League clubs.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that as of December 2, up to 4,000 supporters can attend matches depending on levels of Covid-19 in the area.

Albion’s home fixture against Southampton, currently scheduled for three days later, could be among the first top-flight matches played in front of fans since the pandemic halted football in March.

Brighton chief executive Paul Barber says fans returning to football grounds is 'welcome news'
Brighton chief executive Paul Barber says fans returning to football grounds is ‘welcome news’ (Gareth Fuller/PA).

Barber says an attendance of that level would likely mean Albion continue to operate at a matchday loss, although he recognises the major psychological boost it could provide.

“It’s welcome news. It’s a little bit earlier than we expected. But it’s a good first step towards some degree of normality,” he said.

“Long-term, it’s not viable for us to operate at those sort of levels. It would probably see us operating at a matchday loss. But I think it’s a psychological step towards where we want to be.

“It’s an opportunity for us to prove to Government that we can bring fans back safely and it’s also good for us to be able to re-engage with our supporters, give them something for the loyalty they have shown us while we’ve been playing behind closed doors.

“For me, it’s more symbolic than financial at this stage. It’s more of that psychological step towards normal, which is really important right now.”

Brighton, whose Amex Stadium has a capacity of around 30,000, hosted 2,500 fans for a friendly against Chelsea in late August as part of a trial.

Barber says the ground would need to be at least 25 per cent full – around 7,500 fans – before hosting matches would start to become financially viable.

He said: “We have prepared for fans returning up to 25 per cent of our capacity, which would be much closer to 7,000 to 8,000 supporters than the 2,000 to 4,000 that we might be able to get in there short-term.

“At those sort of levels, it’s certainly more viable for us.

Brighton's Amex Stadium has a capacity of just over 30,000
Brighton’s Amex Stadium has a capacity of just over 30,000 (Mike Hewitt/PA)

“But our aim is to get to a place where we can scale up the number of fans coming back to the stadium safely as quickly as we can.

“And, if we can do that, that returns football to a much more viable position that we have been in for some time now.”

The English Football League will attempt to move its December 1 fixture schedule to a day later in order to take advantage of the decision.

EFL chairman Rick Parry says the decision is a “lifeline” for lower-league clubs.

“We welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement because clearly we’ve been pushing for the return of fans for some considerable time,” Parry told Radio Four’s Today programme.

Rick Parry File Photo
EFL chairman Rick Parry has welcomed the Government’s decision (Mike Egerton/PA)

“We have to build upon it because what we are really looking forward to is getting fans back in more substantial numbers, but this is a really welcome start.

“At League One and League Two level it could be very significant. It’s not just the money, it’s a very welcome return to an atmosphere, and if we get 4,000 at League Two level it can be a very welcome lifeline.”

While some clubs will have to continue to play behind closed doors under the Government’s three-tier system, those in tiers one and two can allow fans in.

Bournemouth, QPR, Sunderland, Oxford, Plymouth and Colchester are among the clubs due to host matches next Tuesday, who could in theory switch to Wednesday.

Gillingham v Charlton Athletic – Sky Bet League One – Priestfield Stadium
Football grounds have been empty since March (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“We need the detail,” added Parry. “Clearly we have a number of games taking place on December 1, in theory we will be as flexible as we can if they can be moved to December 2. But we don’t know which clubs will be in which tier yet.

“We won’t know that until Thursday. We will need permissions from the safety advisory groups, we need to know this is done properly so it’s one step at a time.”

However, Parry admits there will be some logistical hurdles to overcome if clubs are going to be able to welcome back supporters.

“Some clubs will still have safety officers on furlough, it’s taken everyone a bit by surprise,” he said.

“We weren’t really expecting anything before Christmas. There’s a lot of work to do quite quickly and it’s really important that we get this right.

“Clearly it’s something we’ve been pressing for but it’s literally in the last few days that it has become a reality.”

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola welcomed the news.

During the press conference ahead of his side’s Champions League Group C clash at Olympiacos, he said: “If they believe it is the best, we will do it and hopefully it will work.

Pep Guardiola
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola welcomed the news (Paul Childs/PA)

“If the Government has decided, they must have listened to the scientists and doctors.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp also welcomed the development, but had questions about the logic being applied to the numbers involved.

“The problem is, I just struggle to put faith in any kind of announcements,” he said.

“I don’t understand why it is only 2,000 people (in tier two) in a 60,000 stadium. But I am not surprised. It’s good news, I’ll take it, 100 per cent.”

Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling says it is vital fans feel safe when they first return.

“It takes a lot of people and a lot of logistics and we want to plan it perfectly,” Cowling told Sky Sports News.

“The first time people come back it’s so important they feel really safe and they go away and tell people how safe it is at a match compared to a lot of other things.”

The Rugby Football Union is considering whether to use the climax to England’s Autumn Nations Cup campaign on December 6 as an opportunity to prepare for the eventual return of supporters to Twickenham.

Twickenham has been empty over the past few months
Twickenham has been empty over the past few months (David Davies/PA)

Eddie Jones’ side are likely to face France in the competition’s showpiece event.

A spokesperson for the RFU said: “Once we know what tier Twickenham will be in, we will consider running the Autumn Nations Cup final as a test event to support the return of fans to stadiums.

“We are reviewing options and working through the details of how we would manage ticket distribution.”