Club directors James Wakefield and Charlie Appleyard held a fans’ forum on Thursday evening to provide answers to the multitude of questions that the club has been asked about the matchday experience that we can all expect in the season ahead.
The questions were grouped into four sections, and the answers provided were as follows:
Section 1 - Fans in Stadiums:
Q: When will fans be admitted back into the Mazuma Stadium to watch matches?
A: From the beginning of October, pending the success of test events around the country and further clarification from the authorities. A little like when a brand-new stadium opens, the attendance will be more limited for the initially to enable the different measures that are required to be trialled. It will therefore be season-ticket holders only initially. Once everything has been tested and things are running smoothly the attendance will be increased to a slightly higher level.
Q: When will attending away matches be possible?
A: There is currently no answer to this question for the whole of the EFL and, as things stand, away fans will not be able to attend games until further notice. This could well be for the entire season, not least as there are a number of clubs that are likely to struggle to accommodate their season-ticket holders given attendance limits, let alone away fans. Thankfully, MFC isn’t one of them.
Q: How is the stadium being prepared to ensure that it is as safe as possible?
A: The short answer is painstakingly!
The longer answer is that club have been working to the guidance of the authorities to balance the need to make the Mazuma Stadium matchday experience as safe as possible with everyone’s enthusiasm to get back in to see the team in action. This means that everything from social distancing in the stands, family bubbles, food & beverage availability, one-way systems and toilet capacities have had to be considered so that a clear plan for absolutely everything can be drawn up and presented to the EFL for approval.
Every stadium is different and therefore the EFL have not issued consistent attendance % rules to member clubs. Instead, they have made it clear that consistently safe measures need to be implemented, and then left it to clubs to apply these measures.
For the smaller clubs with fewer staff and more limited resources this has been very challenging. However, the Mazuma Stadium is more modern than many and Rod, Mick, Toby, Graham and all of the other staff at the club have rolled their sleeves up to make sure that Morecambe is as prepared as any other club in the League.
A comprehensive fans’ guide to the restrictions, safety measures and rules will be published before the first game to which fans can be admitted.
Q: How many fans are likely to be allowed into the Mazuma Stadium to watch games come October (and assuming no change to the guidance from the authorities)?
A: At least 1,206, which is just shy of 20% of the stadium’s normal capacity. Toby and the rest of the stadium team are working on ways to increase this, potentially by 200+ pending whether and how able fans can be accommodated in bubbles. This is where things are still incredibly complicated for all clubs, not just Morecambe, but we’re working on it!
Once finalised the attendance limit will be subject to final approval of the club’s plan and policies by the EFL. As with everything in 2020 we suggest that everyone expects the worst, which is 1,206, but know that club will continue to do all it can to improve on this.
Q: Will the away end be open to home fans?
A: Yes, the Dennison Stand will be fully open to enable as many home fans to attend games as the restrictions allow while they are in place.
Q: Will season ticket holders be given priority or will access be on a first come, first served basis?
A: Season ticket holders will be given priority for all games and the club has currently sold fewer season tickets than the spaces likely to be available. In addition, season ticket holders will have priority for any test event or events that take place within September.
Q: Will face masks be mandatory inside the ground?
A: Whilst this has still not been clarified by the EFL it is likely that the wearing of masks will be necessary in certain areas of the ground. Especially the concourses and indoor areas, but not necessarily in the stands where steps will have been taken to enable social distancing. We are waiting for final guidance from the authorities on this and will let fans know what the answer is when we get it.
Q: Will singing/chanting be allowed?
A: Despite media rumours to the contrary the direction from the authorities has not been that singing/chanting will not be allowed, and we hope that this will not change. It is one of the reasons that such effort is going into allowing proper social distancing.
If this changes for Morecambe though, it will change for all clubs.
Q: Will social distancing be enforced within the terraces and, if so, how will this be enforced? Will family bubbles be possible in the terraced areas of the ground?
A: Good question. Whilst the terraces have been carefully measured and surveyed to ensure that there is space to enable proper social distancing, a large part of the success of the whole plan is that it is built on trust.
We could have decided to mark out where every fan should stand, but instead we are making sure that there’s sufficient space and asking everyone to exercise common sense by adhering to the clear guidance that will be published. Not just in terms of spacing, but also in terms of socially responsible behaviour in every part of the stadium.
As for family bubbles in the terraces these should be possible, again we’ll be relying upon the good judgement of the fans to ensure that these genuinely are family bubbles!
Q: Will pies and other food & beverages still be available?
A: Sadly the answer is no, at least initially. This is as disappointing for us as it is for everyone else, given past pie consumption levels in the Directors’ Box. However, we will be reviewing what is possible as we go and hope to be able to introduce more facilities as the season progresses. For the time being it is a big enough task just to open the stadium to fans safely, and that is the priority.
Q: In what other ways will the ‘normal’ matchday experience be different for fans?
A: We can’t comment on what it will be like for us come the play-off final at Wembley in May, but we can cover this for the Mazuma.
‘Normal’ won’t be possible until there’s no longer a Pandemic, and the club needs the full support and understanding of fans to make everything work in light of this. Whether it be access to the loos, restricted movement, adherence to new rules, no access to players or limited facilities, nothing can be ‘normal’, despite the fact that the board would like nothing more than to make everything as relaxed and focused on enjoying football as possible.
The reality is that everything will be closely watched by the media and every game will be televised. We therefore need to all work together and be appreciative of the fact that the safety of all fans and the ability of the club to keep the Mazuma Stadium open for as many as possible are the priorities.
Section 2 – Televised Games
Q: How will iFollow access work for home games, both for season-ticket holders and those who normally buy match tickets?
A: As per last week’s announcements, season ticket holders will be able to watch all home league matches iFollow streaming service free of charge until further notice. This ensures that those who have purchased a season ticket will be able to watch all home league games this season, whatever restrictions are in place.
The EFL has set a deadline of 4th October, by which date those wishing to be given complimentary iFollow match passes for home fixtures must have purchased their season-ticket.
Q: How will iFollow access work for away games and home cup ties?
A: All fans based in the UK will be able to purchase a match pass for £10 to watch away games and cup ties live until further notice.
Q: Does the club plan to open JB’s Bar or the Local Choice Suite to show away games?
A: At present both the bar and a section of the Local Choice Suite are designated as red zones, meaning no access to anyone not authorised. This is because they are laid out as overflow changing facilities to enable players and match officials to adhere to social distancing rules on match days. There are simply no other suitable spaces within the ground and there is no flexibility from the authorities on the multitude of rules that have necessarily been put into place.
Sadly, this means that both spaces are out of action as hospitality facilities for the time being. Clearly this is a hit to the club and fans. However, it is what it is for the time being and at least there’s nothing to stop people hooking iPlayer up to the big TV at home and seeing away games live with Freez’s commentary in stereo!
Section 3 – The Impact of all of this on The Club
Q: What is the impact of the various restrictions on the club’s finances?
A: The crisis obviously has impacted the club, but due to our lower cost base and assistance through initiatives such as the furlough scheme, we have got through it so far and fared better than some others. If we had finished last season regularly with the concerts that were planned, we were well on the way to achieving a significantly stronger financial position than was the case in previous seasons. As it is things could still be a lot worse.
Moving forward to this season, it’s clearly uncharted territory for all and therefore we are managing the club’s finances very carefully. The sooner we can put the challenges associated with COVID-19 behind us and get back on track with targeting sustainable self-sufficiency, the better.
Q: Is there any assistance being given from any sources?
A: A little, but not to the extent that anyone can relax. To be fair to the EFL and wider football authorities they have shown a real willingness to consider novel solutions to the unprecedented challenges, with the iPlayer initiative being a good example. Where possible, limited elements of financial assistance have also been provided. Albeit not to the extent that may be necessary if the restrictions remain in place for longer than expected or need to be increased.
In addition, the introduction of the new salary cap system is a welcome change for MFC. Both because it is simpler than the SCMP system that it replaced and because it forces those clubs that may previously have spent beyond their means to gain an advantage to operate more sustainably.
Despite all of this the season ahead does pose a serious financial challenge, not just for Morecambe but for every single club in the EFL. We are more confident than many that we’ll weather the storm, but it’s still going to take a herculean effort, which is why we hugely appreciate the support that we’ve received from everyone associated with the club.
Section 4 – Non COVID-19 Questions:
There were naturally one or two questions off the COVID-19 topic that we are able to answer, as follows:
Q: What is The Club’s 5-year plan is moving forward and is the club ambitious to push for promotion or happy just to stay in the league?
A: The board are acutely aware of the need to have a robust, realistic but ambitious business plan in place to make sustainable progress possible. As a result, we are currently forming a strategy that will set out a clear vision, mission and plan for the next three years. This will cover every aspect of the club’s operations, from players to commercial activities to academy, community and fans. We’re really excited about it, we’re putting it together properly and we’ll communicate it to all later in the season. No more ‘Little Old Morecambe’.
Q: With the financial impact of COVID, is the club looking at forming any long terms partnerships with bigger clubs (almost like the parent feeder club arrangement from years ago)?
A: No, the strategy that the board is forming is aimed at making MFC sustainable and successful without partnerships with larger clubs. That doesn’t mean we won’t cooperate with other clubs where it is genuinely in Morecambe’s interests, but we want to stand up and really compete by ourselves.
Q: Can we improve social media communication between club and fans, match reports, social media interaction & YouTube/video content? More specifically What plans do we have to improve social media and match day coverage as we seem to be way behind our competitors?
A: The club has made huge efforts to improve the club’s social media, in terms of both the quality and regularity of content. This is one area where our limited resources really do have an impact, but the far more extensive iPlayer access this season will really help. It’s an area we want to continue to improve, but that mustn’t take away from the excellent job that Matt Rushton does when there are only so many hours in his day. Comparing MFC’s social media presence to that of club’s with far greater resources isn’t reasonable.
More generally we know that communication can always be improved, and we’re focused on doing so. This said, if we don’t always communicate on issues they are still being attended to, but it is either not appropriate to comment at the time or the matter is still being worked on. There is nearly always a good reason, so please trust us.
Most recently the workload that has been placed upon the club has been huge and this has placed a strain on our ability to communicate as much as we’d like. The COVID-19 protocols we’ve described are extremely strict and are having to be tailored exactly to the Mazuma Stadium and MFC. Our smaller team can mean that things take us longer than they do at larger clubs. So, if you see things on the news, within social media or from other clubs, don’t worry, they are all being considered and handled.
The good news is that we’re getting there and, as fans, we couldn’t be more excited about the season ahead, which will be played out on a far more level playing field than we’ve seen since we entered the Football League in 2007!