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Cambridge United play crucial role to model possible return of fans to EFL stadiums next season

Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium. Picture: Paul Paxford (38220839)
Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium. Picture: Paul Paxford (38220839)

Cambridge United are playing a leading role nationally in an investigation into the safe return of football fans to stadiums across the country next season, the Cambridge Independent can reveal.

The U’s are one of two clubs in the country, the other being Charlton Athletic, working with the English Football League (EFL) and a company called Movement Strategies to model how supporters could return to grounds in a safe and socially-distanced manner.

United had been in communication with the EFL with some proposals as to how it may be possible to get fans back into grounds, and were then asked to assist specialist company Movement Strategies, which modelled movement around big stadiums such as Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur’s ground.

“It’s obviously very important for clubs to see how they can get fans back into stadia,” said Cambridge United CEO Ian Mather.

“We had given some suggestions to the EFL as to how we felt it could work in our ground and as a result of that the EFL asked if we would be one of two clubs in England and Wales to look at how we could manage fans into a stadium.

“Movement Strategies have spent a lot of time at the Abbey, measuring and looking at entrances and exits to work out how the rules should apply going forward.”

Areas that need to be considered are the width of spaces between groups of seats, getting fans in and out of a particular area so they do not cross each other in the gangways, pathways in and around the ground, use of toilets and turnstiles, ticketing measures, and how to manage social groups and family bubbles to limit lost seats.

“A key issue to be resolved is if you’re looking at 1m distance do you take it from the centre of somebody’s head or do you take it from the edge of their shoulder?” said Mather.

“If you take it from the centre of somebody’s head then the number of seats you have to leave empty is bigger.

“Measuring and counting the seats you can then produce the likely capacity of the stadium with a socially-distanced crowd, likewise with standing.

“There are a number of factors to work on, but working it through you can get to a point where football is a safe place to go, which is the cornerstone of this.

“It is giving people confidence that we’ve managed it in such a way that it is safe to come and watch football.

“When we have done the final analysis I think we will have a fairly accurate number of how we could get people into the stadium.

“There would be a set of guidelines produced, we then agree that locally with the safety advisory group of the local council and the police.”

Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium. Picture: Paul Paxford (38220835)
Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium. Picture: Paul Paxford (38220835)

It should be a source of great pride for the U’s that they were chosen by the EFL to be part of such a big project that could have a positive impact on so many people across the country.

Supporters of many sports are eager for a return, and the findings of this study could help to allow that to happen.

“This is an essential piece of work to allow fans to watch all sorts of sports, and to that extent it’s great to be a part of it because we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible for fans to watch in a socially-distanced way,” said Mather.

“There will be reduced numbers, but it will be safe. To be a part of that process and to be one of the two clubs that do it, we’re very pleased to have been asked and very pleased to be able to make a difference.

“It’s a compliment to us that the EFL thought we were the right club to work with.”

The government is aware that the work is being carried out as it had asked for clear evidence to inform its next release of measures, based on models produced in real stadia.

An EFL spokesman said: “The EFL is working with the SGSA [Sports Ground Safety Authority] on a joint project looking at the impact of applying social distancing to football stadia.

“As a result, work is ongoing at Charlton Athletic and Cambridge United that involves modelling the crowd dynamics of two very different football grounds.

“This will help us measure the potential impact on stadium capacity and better understand how clubs will need to adjust their matchday operations so that as many fans as possible can be admitted in a safe environment.

“The help and support provided by both clubs has been invaluable and will inform future guidance that will go to all clubs once the government gives the green light for crowds to return to matches.

“At this stage we do not know when that will be but we continue to prepare for such an outcome.”

Areas being looked at:

  • Width of seats
  • Getting fans in and out of a particular area so they do not need to cross each other in gangways less than a metre apart
  • Looking at pathways for an in and out
  • Managing the flow of supporters in and out of toilets so they maintain 1m distance
  • Turnstiles and entry points, socially distanced
  • Avoiding queuing so ticketing is important to make sure everyone has a ticket and no queues on the day
  • Social groups - a family group do not need to be socially distanced as they are living together in a family bubble. Working to seat them together to save some lost seats.

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