Can football come home and save our summer?

It’s the refrain that reverberates around England every couple of years and lifts many hearts for a few weeks – and it could be again this summer: Football’s Coming Home.

Reports at the weekend that Britain could be set to host the entire, delayed Euro 2020 tournament got the football world talking.

With government ministers already in the process of developing plans for fans to come back to stadiums before the end of the season, The Sunday Times reported that European football’s flagship event could be hosted solely in the UK because of the country’s impressive vaccination rate compared with the rest of the EU.

Of course the semi-finals and final were already scheduled to be played at Wembley – as were group matches in England’s group – and Scotland’s Hampden Park is also set to host fixtures at the delayed tournament – but Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is believed to have told UEFA that, with the end of May as a target for getting supporters back to stadiums, Britain would “respond positively” if it was asked to host more matches.

Fans returned to grounds for the first time in nine months in November 2020 for clubs that were in Tier 1 or 2 of the government’s coronavirus restrictions but then all games went back to being behind closed doors when the new lockdown was enforced in December.

In May, however, It is thought that crowds will be much bigger than the 4,000 allowed into stadiums last autumn. 

The news will not only be joyous to so many football supporters in Britain but also, surely to Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, who is said to be fearful of the consequences of scrapping the tournament which is still scheduled to go ahead across 12 different countries this summer. 

It is reported that UEFA has no intention of cancelling the tournament because of the financial damage it would inflict so a single host solution might be the answer. 

The news would also be a fantastic boost to grassroots football in this country, as a home tournament always raises participation levels.

Monday’s news that grassroots football should be coming back soon after schools return was a shot in the arm following an alarming report last week that more than 5,000 clubs could cease to exist as a result of the pandemic. There are 43,000 active clubs in the UK and, according to the research, 12% say closure is inevitable.

More than 12 million people play at grassroots level in the UK and, according to the Football Association, its value in England alone is £10.8bn: £8.7bn in improved physical and mental wellbeing and £2bn in economic value. 

But the report, “The Final Whistle For Grassroots Football”, found that 96% of clubs in the UK have had their income slashed this year.

Sky News interviewed Badsey Rangers FC manager Wayne Neale, who said: “The hardest part for us will be finding sponsorship. Companies don’t want to part with money at the moment. What they’ve got is pretty much what they need to survive themselves.

“Obviously pubs and hospitality trading has been closed, so it’s not really a question you want to ask,” he said.

Neale added that it was not just the financial worries that alarmed him, it was the mental wellbeing of the next generation of players. “As soon as some players hit the pitches they become a totally different person – it’s great to see,” he said. “You see the liveliness of them. The more they don’t see each other, the more their mental and physical health will become affected. It’s not a good sign at all,” he said.

David James, the former England goalkeeper who is fronting a campaign to save grassroots football, said: “This isn’t just about kids playing football, this is about the community. Without grassroots football, everybody loses.

“It is a fundamental part of the development process for any football career, so it is important we maintain it and don’t lose any more clubs.

James has launched a petition calling for subsided or free access to state-owned and council-run training facilities. He said: “If I was to talk to a government official right now, I would say the mental health issues, physical health issues, social wellbeing are just three areas where grassroots football helps the government. Grassroots football is fundamentally important.”

Sport England said it has awarded over £10.8m of funding to 1,575 grassroots football clubs and organisations across England since last March.

While outdoor swimming, golf and tennis all look set to reopen within a few weeks, adult amateur football and other amateur contact sports may remain closed for some time.

Non-elite football from tiers three to six in the National League system and three to seven in the Women’s Football pyramid have been suspended since the third national lockdown was announced on 4 January.

Regional leagues, indoor and outdoor youth and adult grassroots football, and the Women’s FA Cup – which is currently classified as  “non-elite” – are also suspended.

More good news revealed over the weekend, though, was that a five-minute Covid test made in the UK could speed up a return to action.

Yorkshire firm Avacta have developed a new super-fast lateral flow test which is understood to be in its last testing stage at the Government’s Porton Down lab.

The rapid testing could be used on admission to large events. 

Chief executive of UK Music Jamie Njoku-Goodwin told The Mirror: “If approved and found to be effective, this test could be a game changer.”

 

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