Trevor Birch says the EFL remains hopeful that Welsh fans will be able to return to stadiums for the upcoming play-offs — and says it is committed to ensuring sides in England aren’t handed an unfair advantage of being backed by home fans.
Matches in England are set to welcome back a limited number of supporters from May 17 – the same day as the two opening legs of the Championship play-off semi-finals – as part of plans announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson back in February.
However, despite ongoing discussions between all relevant parties, there is still no clarity on whether fans in Wales will be able to do the same.
Swansea City have, of course, already booked their spot in the top six of the Championship, while Newport County only need a point from their final day clash at Southend United on May 8 to cement their place in the League Two play-offs.
As things stand, neither side would be allowed to welcome fans through their turnstiles for the post-season schedule, despite their English counterparts being free to do so.
It’s a situation which has prompted intense discussions behind the scenes, but the EFL are seemingly confident that a solution can be found.
Swansea are set to be joined by Bournemouth, Brentford and Barnsley in this year’s Championship play-offs, with the semi-finals set to conclude on May 22 ahead of a the final at Wembley six days later.
Morecambe, Tranmere Rovers, Forest Green, Exeter City and Salford City are among the possible opponents for the Exiles, with the opening leg currently penciled in for May 20, with the return game coming three days later.
The League Two play-off final will be held at Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday, May 31.
EFL chief executive Trevor Birch told Gist Vile that there have already been positive discussions held with the Welsh Government, who sent a delegation to Wembley to see first hand the measures in place for the Carabao Cup final earlier this month.
Birch said: “We are working collaboratively with the Welsh Government in respect of the potential for supporters to return to Welsh stadia for the EFL play-offs next month and hope that we can agree on an approach that can work in conjunction with the current restrictions in place.
“The league was delighted to host a delegation from the Welsh Government at Wembley last Sunday so they could see first-hand the processes and procedures implemented as part of the Westminster Government’s Events Research Programme.
“The feedback received was very positive and will help inform the position on both sides of the border as we continue to jointly navigate our way through the various challenges.”
The EFL has also moved to ease fears of Swansea or Newport playing against English opposition backed by fans if they cannot welcome supporters to grounds themselves, and accept such a scenario would likely spark questions over the integrity of the competition.
Birch added: “The two-legged play-off matches are hugely significant for both clubs and their supporters and it would be unfair from a sporting integrity perspective to have the support of a crowd at one game and not the other, alongside the financial implications resting on the outcome.
“Both ourselves and the Welsh Government are in agreement that fans safely returning in numbers to stadiums is crucial for the sustainability of EFL clubs in Wales and we will both be working hard to try and achieve a positive outcome not only in the short-term for those who may be involved in the play-off competition but in the longer-term as we set our sights on returning to full stadiums from the start of next season.”
It’s not clear what a return to stadiums would look like in Wales, although matches hosted in England will likely be staged in accordance with the UK Government’s stage five protocols, with crowds likely to be limited to around 25 per cent capacity in seated areas.
The EFL believes matches can be staged safely on both sides of the border, and it’s understood clubs across England are putting arrangements in place with local authorities in preparation for staging fixtures, with the success of recent trial events including the FA Cup semi-finals and Carabao Cup final increasing momentum towards supporters returning.
The Welsh Government is set to launch its own set of pilot crowd events as part of its roadmap out of lockdown, but it’s not yet clear which events will be chosen.
Swansea are understood to have already put themselves forward for hosting a test event, while the Football Association of Wales has also put forward their pre-Euro 2020 clash with Albania at Cardiff City Stadium on June 5.
It seems highly likely that if fans are going to attend matches in Wales, it will likely have to be part of the Welsh Government’s programme of test events.
A decision from politicians in Cardiff Bay is unlikely to be made until after the Senedd elections on May 6, which in theory could drastically affect the country’s route out of lockdown.
In the meantime, discussions with the EFL and FAW are still ongoing.
Teams in Wales have been without supporters since the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, and Swansea boss Steve Cooper admits that having the Jack Army return would be a big boost to his side.
When quizzed on the possibility of welcoming back fans to the Liberty Stadium in time for the play-offs, Swansea boss Steve Cooper said: “I’m not sure about the fan situation, both in England and Wales.
“It would be brilliant. I’m assuming all went well at the League Cup final. Hopefully that’s the start of progression of getting fans back into stadiums.
“We’ve certainly missed ours and we can’t wait to have them back in. We went into the play-offs last season in good form, but I don’t think there’s a written rule, on whether it’s third or sixth, that you get to the final.”
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