The saying goes that “a week is a long time in politics” and there’s more than a grain of truth to that. Last Friday, I published a letter I’d written to my MP in this space (see A sticking plaster on a severed thumb). I shared it on Twitter:

{source}<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>I wrote to my MP on Tuesday, to ask them to support <a href=””>@PrescotCablesFC</a> by lobbying <a href=””>@DCMS</a> to <a href=”;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LetFansIn</a>.<br><br>I was inspired by the statement given to <a href=””>@Ollie_Bayliss</a> but now Soft Play can let people in and football clubs can&#39;t, I&#39;ve decided to share my letter:<a href=””></a></p>&mdash; Gareth Coates (@GarethECoates) <a href=””>August 14, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src=”” charset=”utf-8″></script>{/source}

That tweet clearly struck a nerve. Within hours, I’d had an email from my MP’s office, offering sympathy for the plight of non-League clubs and promising to share with me any response he received from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I’d had numerous retweets and replies; in total, that single message has been viewed more than 19,000 times. And the original letter was read hundreds of times and even adapted by others. My tweet was one of thousands bearing the hashtag #LetFansIn; a campaign that gained TV coverage last Sunday and then hit a tipping point, when more than 30 MPs signed a letter of support.

By Tuesday, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had “clarified” their stance; as far as they were concerned, clubs at Steps 3-6 of the National Leagues System COULD admit fans. Somewhat disingenously, DCMS worded their statement in such a way as to suggest that this had always been the case and that it was The FA who had imposed the restrictions upon the clubs.

I don’t buy that for a moment. The DCMS guidance refers to “elite” sport and “recreational” sport. The FA has consistently argued that the non-League game falls between these two points, so needed a bespoke solution. It is easy – sometimes too easy – to have a go at the governing body but on this, I make them right. Most non-League clubs exist in a weird environment in which players are paid for their services; just not usually enough to call it their main job. That isn’t “recreational” sport.

For the Government to make this U-turn in the midst of a series of spectacular reversals is, of course, welcome. It is what I have consistently argued for since the campaign to #LetFansIn began. But, while those of us who wrote letters, or tweets (or both) can claim a victory, what have we secured for ourselves and our clubs? Have we simply won the first battle of a protracted wider conflict?

It seems so, not least because two of the clubs which banged the #LetFansIn drum hardest cannot benefit from the new reality. Dorking Wanderers and Concord Rangers, via their Chairman, Ant Smith, were extremely high profile advocates of the campaign but as they play at Step 2 in National League South they are classified as “elite” sport, so are not yet permitted to welcome fans to their matches.

In some ways, Wanderers are hoist by their own petard. They were extremely active in a previous social media campaign, #Promote2, which helped to facilitate promotion play-offs at Step 2. In order to achieve that, the Step 2 clubs needed to persuade DCMS that they met similar criteria to the levels above, which had been previously defined as elite sport. Having successfully achieved that, surely those clubs at the top of Step 2 understand that they cannot have it both ways?

Concord are members of the same division, but in a different scenario. They didn’t qualify for the play-offs, so #Promote2 wasn’t relevant to them. As a relatively small club at that level (their average attendance last season was 440), Concord have far more in common with a club like Prescot Cables than with some of their divisional rivals. As such, they need to generate income in the same way as any other club and that means welcoming paying fans.

As cruel as the cutting-off point is for Concord, those clubs lower down aren’t exactly in the Land of Milk and Honey now they can let people in. The FA published new guidance on Wednesday, which imposed ground capacities based on the minimum capacity at each step, as opposed to the number of fans each ground could normally accomodate. This restricted my local club, Prescot Cables to 200 fans in a ground that can accomodate up to 3,200. Given that the average crowd at Prescot last season was 371, this represented a problem, particularly as we’d need to be able to comply with government policy around ‘Track and Trace’ and collect contact information for supporters.

Fortunately, because I built the club website in WordPress, help was at hand. I found a ‘plugin’ (a tool we could install) which would help me set up an online ticketing system with both default stadium capacity and event-specific limits. I set the club up to take debit and credit card payments via Stripe, which is cheaper than PayPal, pays direct into the bank within a week and provides detailed reports. The two were linked together, the system tested extensively and the plans for today’s game signed off.

Then, at 6:00pm yesterday, we launched the sale. Of course, the website fell over. I’d more or less predicted it would, but what took me by surprise was the kind of errors it threw up and just how busy the site was. We’ve learned from that and the site now has double the CPU power and double the memory behind it than it did 24 hours ago. That doesn’t mean it won’t crash in future, but it does mean we’ve given ourselves the best chance of keeping it running at times of high demand.

We also only got the guidance from The FA on Wednesday and launched the sale on Friday night. While I had been planning for online ticketing for a little while, all the detail had to be pulled together quickly.

All clubs will need to be able to Track and Trace when they admit supporters and cash is obviously not ideal as a payment method in the current climate, so these are challenges that we all have to face.

I think we are the ‘guinea pigs’; if clubs from Step 3 and below can successfully stage matches in front of small crowds, that can only help the National League to also #LetFansIn. The non-League community needs to keep the pressure up on this, if only to support clubs like Concord who have supported the rest of us. One way to do that, is to get the games played safely, starting today.