Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: A year without fans

Recently we have hit a couple of anniversaries relating to football and Covid-19.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 8:00 am

I covered in this column a fortnight ago the last time Preston North End fans were able to attend an away game.

Last weekend we hit the 12-month mark since the turnstiles last clicked at Deepdale.

Today – March 13 – is a big one, a year since football came to a shuddering halt and didn’t return for more than three months.

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Preston were due to visit Luton’s Kenilworth Road on March 14 last year (above) but football was suspended the day before

Has that time flown? No, it seems a lifetime ago.

We were still a week or more away from the first lockdown and the big concern around that time appeared to be stockpiling toilet roll.

Football stopping really brought things into sharp focus, highlighting what was enveloping us.

March 13 fell on a Friday last year, a full round of games scheduled for the weekend.

North End were due at Luton Town the day after, backed by 1,032 of their fans who had snapped up the limited allocation in the Kenilworth Road away section.

On the Thursday it had been press day at PNE’s then training ground Springfields.

During his interview that morning, Alex Neil had voiced concerns about the continuation of football, indeed sport as a whole, as the virus took a grip.

I remember the North End manager questioning whether the Cheltenham Festival should have gone ahead.

Significantly, Neil also put on record it was his view that once a leading figure in football caught Covid, that could see the game halted.

That very night, news came out that Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had been diagnosed with the virus. On the Friday morning, players trained while they awaited news on what the immediate future held for football and sport.

At 11.06, it was announced that all football in the EFL and Premier League was suspended.

Optimistically, the suspension was only until April 3, although with an ‘at the earliest’ tag attached.

For North End fans, the Luton trip was off, and they were told to keep hold of their tickets for the time being.

Thoughts turned to the April 3 date when football’s suspension ran to. PNE were due to play at Huddersfield the day after but it soon became clear that games wouldn’t commence for many weeks.

Clubs were left in limbo in terms of what the players should be doing while the immediate concern was what the financial future was, with no revenue coming in for the foreseeable.

Such financial worries continue to grip the game 12 months on and will continue for some time to come.

On the playing front, clubs kept players in training for a few days before deciding the best thing to do would be to give them a break at home, armed with fitness programmes.

This reporter suddenly found himself with his weekends free, a rarity when you take into account I’d been working most Saturdays since 1990.

My days began being taken up keeping in touch with North End and trying to get an idea of when football might return.

In order to keep fans in touch with the club, PNE began remote press conferences with players and Neil.

They started via Skype and then on Zoom – Mr Zoom must have earned a packet this last year bearing in mind it’s been a massive line of communication in many of our lives.

It was to be June 20 when football finally restarted, in the Premier League and Championship anyway. PNE ventured to Luton that first Saturday but without their fans – a scenario which continues to this day.

They have played 48 competitive games since and I’ve been at 45 of them.

I count myself privileged to have been able to cover the games, knowing I’m one of the relatively few allowed in a football ground. I’m used to the protocol surrounding entrance to the matches but it all still seems quite strange.

Factor in the friendlies I also covered in pre-season, I’ve had my temperature taken more than 50 times going into a ground.

I’ve filled in a health form before every game, giving an undertaking I’m fit and healthy that day – I use the word fit loosely! Press boxes are no longer sociable places, reporters spread out to adhere to social distancing.

Press conferences after games are occasionally done in person, more often via Zoom and in competition with the noise from the mowers on the pitch.

Who would have thought of all this 12 months ago as we began to shut down?

I referenced earlier how a year ago clubs started to wrestle with the idea of how to survive when basically they had no income.

Most clubs are walking a financial tightrope and the return of fans being back in grounds cannot come soon enough.

The fact all 92 clubs in the league are still in business is quite an achievement.

PNE’s accounts were published this week and showed a £7.7m loss, a lesser amount than the year before.

But that loss came despite the £7m received for Callum Robinson from Sheffield United being in the financial year’s figures.

These accounts cover the period to the end of June last year, when there had been no income for part of March, all of April and May, and with the restart period in its infancy.

The next set of accounts published, which will be published this time next year, will make for interesting reading – no income from crowds at all in that period and with the wage bill rising.

In the financial year just reported, Trevor Hemmings put £7.8m into North End.

The issuing of new shares, which is the way Hemmings and many owners invest, has become more frequent this last few months.

That figure of £7.8m is likely to be much higher in next year’s accounts.

Let us just hope that some normality is now nearing.