English sport was dealt a hammer blow on Friday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrapped plans for fans to attend pilot events this weekend.
Around 5,000 racegoers were expected at the Glorious Goodwood festival on Saturday, and cricket fans were to be allowed back in for two fixtures in the Bob Willis Trophy at the Oval and Edgbaston.
However, the Government responded to fears of a second wave of the coronavirus by shelving all pilot events with spectators planned for the first two weeks of August. The World Snooker Championship welcomed fans for its first day on Friday but the remaining 16 days will be held behind closed doors following the Prime Minister’s decision.
‘Pilots of crowds at sports events will now not take place,’ said Mr Johnson. ‘I said we would not hesitate to put on the brakes at the slightest sign the numbers were going in the wrong direction — we can’t just ignore this evidence.’
It was thought more supporters could return to events in October if the pilots were successful, but that is now in great doubt.
Friday’s U-turn dampened hopes football fans may return to Premier League grounds early in the new season, and cast uncertainty over the FA’s plans to have 10,000 at Wembley for the Community Shield on August 29.
The RFU were also aiming to welcome 40,000 fans back to Twickenham for England matches this autumn. The Government’s decision has put that on hold and left organisers of the pilot events counting the cost.
‘I am devastated, gutted and upset,’ said World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn. ‘It was all going well until that announcement. But you have to live in the real world, and the real world is not a pleasant place at the moment.
‘We have to take what God gives us. Today he has thrown us a googly. Bowled all legs up. Mike Gatting never faced a ball like this in his life!
‘We always have Plan A and Plan B — and Plan B is behind closed doors. There is the outside chance it might be relaxed for the final, but that’s me being hopeful.
‘I am sorry for my friends at Goodwood racing to lose their meeting on Saturday. I am very sorry for cricket and I am very sorry for us.’
The Goodwood Festival will continue without spectators on Saturday after plans to welcome thousands back through the gates were abandoned. ‘It’s a big kick. There was a bit of light, wasn’t there?’ said Goodwood managing director Adam Waterworth. ‘We were all ready to go.
‘This wasn’t just horseracing, it was a pilot for the whole of sport. Cricket got their couple of days in this week but we were the big one who’d been asked to trial with larger numbers.
‘It has cost us six figures but it was never a money-making exercise, it was about proving we could have crowds back.
‘I hope it doesn’t have an impact on October 1, when it was announced sports could have crowds again. Hopefully there will be the opportunity for racing to show we can do this, but we are going to have to run some trials fairly quickly.’
Cricket hosted the first pilot event last weekend when fans returned to the Oval for a two-day cricket friendly between Surrey and Middlesex. But another meeting between the counties in a Bob Willis Trophy match on Saturday, and Warwickshire’s game against Northamptonshire at Edgbaston will take place behind closed doors.
The ECB said in a statement: ‘We understand this is disappointing for supporters who have waited a long time to see their clubs in action and were looking forward to attending pilot events at the Oval and Edgbaston.
‘However, we understand the reasons the Government has made this decision, and remain ready to work with them to ensure supporters can safely return to stadiums when Government advice allows.’
The implications for football could be more serious after Premier League clubs were forced to repay £330million to broadcasters for finishing the season behind closed doors. It is estimated that the loss of matchday revenue cost clubs in England’s top four divisions in excess of £300m.
Over the next few weeks, Premier League and EFL clubs were hoping to hold test events in stadiums but those plans are on hold.
However, there remains a strong hope that clubs will be allowed to let supporters back into grounds from October 1, albeit at reduced capacities. Premier League chief executive Richard Masters is looking into the possibility of ‘clinical passports’ to get fans back into grounds safely.
An FA spokesperson said: ‘The FA have offered to use the Community Shield at Wembley as a test event and are waiting to see if this is possible according to Government guidelines.’