BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Millwall chief executive Steve Kavanagh has labelled it “a disgrace” that fans are not already back in football stadiums – and warned it is pushing clubs to the brink of oblivion.
The Lions have requested making their home Championship fixture against Brentford on September 26 a pilot game with the EFL trialling a maximum of 1,000 supporters being admitted.
But Kavanagh can’t understand why the sport has not been able to do something sooner when other industries – which locked down later – have been back open for weeks.
The government pledged a £1.57billion support package to museums, galleries and theatres in July as the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating effect.
“The football pyramid is seriously at risk if we don’t find a way to support clubs through this,” said Kavanagh. “If we had 6,000 or 6,500 fans [at The Den] it is just about washing its face. Let’s not think everything is great in that scenario – 6,000 would still be an absolute disaster, but as long as it’s part of the journey and we keep moving forward then I’ll take that for now.
“I’ve got no problem with other businesses getting help. There was a £1.5bn support package to protect our heritage but customers are back in theatres now. It acts as a comparison – we are trying to understand why we are still closed because while that is the case we can’t get back on our feet.
“We’re still shut and it is a disgrace. It’s fantastic that theatres are open indoors with social distancing. But a football crowd is outside with social distancing.
“Football is reliant on owners keeping community clubs alive. Perhaps owners shouldn’t have kept putting their hands in their pockets and kept these assets alive for fans – so that when they come back there is something to actually come back to. If they hadn’t then someone in the government might have taken notice.
“Football is part of society and what makes this country so great. But football is struggling. Premier League clubs are struggling and underneath that it is a car crash.
“John Berylson [Millwall’s owner] has kept this club alive. I don’t know where we’d be without John in this period. We’d be in real trouble and he has been amazing.
“It’s not just John – every chairman around the country has done that. But if we don’t get crowds back at some point then their patience and desire to help these clubs, which are community assets, snaps and then I don’t know what happens.”
Millwall have done extensive and exhaustive work in recent months to make sure they are ready to welcome fans back in a safe environment. Their last home fixture in front of a crowd was against Bristol City on February 29.
“Where I’m really frustrated, annoyed, confused and upset is we were one of the first industries to shut down,” said Kavanagh. “We said – responsibly – we don’t think we should have fans in. But pubs kept running for another two weeks. They are back open and we’re still closed.
“I know we’re playing games but to all intents and purposes our businesses are still shut. We still have 90 members of staff on furlough.”
But Kavanagh is quick to point out that his determination to get fans back to The Den is not just financially driven.
“There are many different aspects,” said Kavanagh, pictured above. “Purely from a fans’ perspective we know they are desperate to get back to the ground and we’ve missed them.
“We play Let ‘Em Come as the team comes out and to not have them roaring along to it at the end is soul destroying. We play Rockin’ All Over The World and there is no-one there to enjoy it.
“The players miss that engagement. For football in general – forget the financial side for a second – getting fans back is critical in saving the game. It is soulless without fans.
“No-one I know in football is saying this current situation is a good thing. I even know that opposition managers are not enjoying it even if they’d get all sorts of abuse – which I’m sure they would be relieved about – but we’re getting sterile affairs.
“For the long-term good of the game we need to find ways to change that.”
Millwall have to comply with the Sports Ground Safety Authority and their own safety group – which comprises the emergency services and local council.
“We were regulated pre-Covid and post-Covid it has been rolled back and the regulations are astronomical,” said Kavanagh. “We’ve got absolutely no problem with that.
“We want to showcase the excellent work that has quietly taken place behind the scenes.
“Health and safety is of paramount importance and no-one is understating that.
“The SGSA’s document is about 180 pages long and it has taken ages to integrate and understand.”
Millwall’s own matchday protocol is 120 pages and they have employed a Covid officer.
They have moved their kiosks into the club car park to effectively make their concourse open air.
Lions manager Gary Rowett said: “I appreciate a lot of people have lost loved ones but we also can’t put everything on hold forever.
“At some point we have to dive back in and see what happens. I really hope we can get fans back in – it’s been really difficult without them there.
“I feel exactly the same now – 12 games in – as I did at the start. It really isn’t the same.”
Please support your local paper by making a donation
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.