With today’s news that fans will be allowed back in stadiums in the UK, we caught up with Nial Coulter, from Happy Days fanzine, who attended a Northern Irish International match only last week...

As today’s announcement from the Prime Minister filtered through there was some stuff about tiers and pubs and stuff like that… wait, fans at grounds? Did he just say that? We’re getting back in the grounds?

Sit down, stop running around the room waving your hands in the air, there only a maximum of 4,000 fans allowed in, regardless of whether you’re Barnet or Arsenal. What does that look like, how does it work, who gets tickets? Well there just happens to be precedent out there. I caught up with Niall Coulter, the editor of Happy Days fanzine, the fanzine for the Northern Ireland team to get his take on it. Niall, you see, had the luxury of attending a match recently.

The fanzine started in 2005 as sister publication of ALS. They generally only do one physical copy of the fanzine a year, given that internationals happen less frequently and print media is going through a bit of decline, but it is a fanzine no less. In the build up to the Euros Niall had been to all 12 of Northern Ireland's fixtures; then Covid struck. Rules are different across the four home nations, which is fair because they are all impacted differently. Northern Ireland had lockdown restrictions just as we have in England so the tale is fairly familiar. What Northern Ireland did a little differently when things got better was to open the stadiums.

“The Premier League was kind of the test really. September was behind closed doors but after that they said they would allow 600-1,000 fans into the games. This was only in the top flight because below that it’s basically amateur level, the equivalent of National League I guess. Once they saw that it could work under the right circumstances they approached the FA. There was a match against Norway in September which was behind closed doors but then they started to look at whether they could do something beyond that. The initial idea was to maybe get 3,000 in at each game. The ticketing works similar to how it does in England; Northern Ireland have about 12,000 season ticket holders. We had 3 games coming up and they thought that would probably mean that every season ticket holder could attend a game. So when they announced it you could apply for all the games but you only got one. The first one was Austria and there were only 600 tickets available for that. There were more there because of corporates and officials but there were 600 tickets available. There are 30 of us in our supporters’ club all of who go to all the games, but only 3 got tickets for that game. It was difficult, do you accept an Austria ticket or wait for the lottery of another match? As it happens we beat Bosnia on penalties so the second match was a play off final against Slovakia. Everyone wants to go to that one.”

That conundrum of who is allowed into the stadium is one that Sunderland will now have to grapple with. Season card holders will, reasonably, be prioritised I would imagine but what order do you do that in? We have more than 4,000 season card holders if by some miracle we are in tier 1 when lockdown ends. What about loyalty points?

“Yeah there’s been some kickback on that in Northern Ireland. So basically you could have been to every game like I was but that wasn’t taken into consideration at all. I missed out on the play off final because I wasn’t lucky enough to win the lottery for that one. At a club level that’s easier for Sunderland in League One in a way because you just want to go and watch the team, whether it’s Accrington or Oxford; but if you were higher up and it’s a game against Newcastle or Boro? It’s tough. That’s possibly the thing that’s held it back in England, like how do they sort that out?”

The point about going to any match just to see the Lads is pertinent. Well, to me anyway. I miss football. I miss the social aspect. I miss the people I only ever see in connection with the matchday experience. I miss the bloke on the end of the row who’s name I don’t even know but we always roll our eyes at each other when i leave the stadium. So how was the experience under the restrictions?

“Very weird”

“The atmosphere is absolutely dead. Obviously shouting and screaming and singing increases the risk of the virus spreading so you all have to wear masks. The stewards are watching you the whole time to make sure you don’t take it off. Most of the tickets were sold in pairs so you could sit with someone in your bubble but then there was a four seat gap. Then two rows space before it was repeated. The thing with Windsor Park is that you have loads of different coloured seats so you can’t always tell if someone’s sitting in it so it doesn’t look empty really, but it’s quiet. A few times some people tried to get some noise started but it didn’t last. In the stadium itself there’s a one way system so you walk up one entrance and leave down another. The toilets are open but the bars, food places, merchandise….all that was closed. When you got there it didn’t feel like a matchday, it was more like what it is at about 6 o’clock after the match has finished. The floodlights are on but there only a few people milling about. There were no queues at the turnstiles because there were so few people. You got there and the stewards just looked at you rather than search you. Like “does he look like he’s got any alcohol on him” not that you could have brought any in because the stewards were watching you the whole time. Everyone was really sensible and so it worked. Outside the ground you’d see a few lads together having cans but all the pubs were shut so that whole social side had gone. I met up with people I haven’t seen for ages because I only see them at the match and it was weird. We were stood in this extended circle chatting to each other.”

Did he feel safe?

“Definitely, it felt very safe. It’s safer than going to the supermarket.”

This is a very good point, you go to the supermarket regularly and pick up things that may have been picked up by many before you and placed back on the shelf. Here at Windsor Park there were strict measures in place, why shouldn’t you feel safer here than in a supermarket. So would it work in England?

“I don’t see why not. Obviously the big worries with football are like what if you score? Your automatic reaction is to go and hug the person next to you or whatever but you can control that. The game against Romania was a dead rubber so in a more important game who knows but the FA issued good guidance, like don’t take public transport. It was well managed and is evidence that it works. It’s not ideal but you would just go to any game at the moment and accept the lack of atmosphere.”

So what does this mean for Sunderland in League One, the extra costs associated with enforcing sanitisation, the logistical challenges, the expenditure on sanitisers and tape and all that, would it be too much for impoverished league one clubs? Would the costs outweigh the income? Who knows. “It’s a good point. There weren’t any less stewards there really than there would normally be. Then there’s the turnstile staff. It may be that the bigger clubs like Sunderland and Ipswich and maybe Portsmouth lead the way. Maybe it’s a choice.”

Regardless of what the decisions made by Boris or Sunderland are, what remains absolutely clear is that the experience will be a very different one with complications never imagined. It will need patience from all of us but at the end of the day, if we can go and sit and watch a football match then we’re in a better place even if Parky isn’t making a sub until the 80th minute.

Thank you to Niall Coulter