After 230 days without it competitive football returns to Shielfield on Saturday when Lowland League Season 2020/21 gets underway. It will be a return like no other with no paying punters inside the grounds and games being streamed by many clubs, including Berwick. There is no real indication as to when this will change with some predicting we could go a whole season with no fans. A petition has been doing the rounds and #letfansin has gained some traction on social media with support from all levels of the game. Meanwhile in England some lower levels have been allowed fans in for a few weeks now.
It is hard to see how in terms of pure numbers it doesn't work. If you take Shielfield even allowing for only 10% of capacity would pretty much cover all of last season's league gates with comfort and it would be easy enough to spread out right around the ground to ensure social distancing. Similarly I went to a fair few games at Netherdale last season and frequently was the only fan standing at the bottom half of the ground opposite the stand. From figures I've seen on Social Media it would seem self-evident that most clubs could easily house their average home gate even if there was a limit based on a percentage of capacity.
As fans though we have to appreciate that it isn't just about numbers it's about the protocols in place to ensure the ground is safe. So there needs to be adequate stewarding and other measures to ensure fans follow relevant guideline, it needs entrances and exits to be well managed (even something as simple as squeezing through a turnstile takes on new meaning in these times - do you take everyone's temperature? Should the turnstile be cleaned between every punter?); decisions have to be made regarding toilets, catering and hospitality. All of this costs money to implement and some of it will result in reduced income and that's before the overall economic climate has an impact on our clubs.
We also have to think about the players. At the moment there are issues around not being able to use changing rooms or showers which as we move into winter and start playing more night matches becomes increasingly more problematic. Under Scottish Government guidelines they should all be travelling independently by car unless they are in the same household, but I did read somewhere they could travel by bus, and there is considerable confusion around quarantine/isolation rules should someone in the squad return a positive test or have symptoms - we have seen different rules apply to different clubs and we have seen the rules change during an isolation period. Players are also going to be concerned about potential impacts on their day jobs. It's easy to see a situation where a lot of players start to question whether it's all worth the hassle and start to drift away from the game.
Consequently instead of going into a new season buzzing with the usual optimism that all fans have before the first match it feels like there is a general sense that the season isn't really starting that it's a bit of a phoney war while there is a huge sense of doubt as to how the season will progress.
There's quite a heavy turnover of matches in October with 6 league games in the 21 days, four Saturday games and two midweek games. We start with a double header, Vale of Leithen at Shielfield on Saturday and a journey through to Ainslie Park to face The Spartans on Tuesday.
Last season we faced Vale in November at Shielfield and ran out 4 - 0 winners on the day with 2 penalties from Ricky Miller and goals from Yaw Osei and Cieran Chalmers. The return fixture had been scheduled originally for January but was lost to the weather and we never got to the rescheduled match in March as the league was suspended the day before it was due to happen.
When the season was brought to an abrupt end Vale were left sitting bottom of the table three points adrift of Dalbeattie and four away from Gretna and Edinburgh University (with games in hand). It had been a difficult season for Vale with some big defeats - not least an 11 - 0 thrashing at Kelty and a 7 - 1 at Cumbernauld. Having said that we made heavy weather of our 4 - 0 win and were a bit flattered by the scoreline.
Only four players remain from the team that started in November - Kevin Waugh, Euan Smith, Dan Purves and Ali Forster while Jack Wright and Lewis Barr were on the bench. One of our new signings Liall Smith was on the bench for Vale that day and they have also gone through significant restructuring of their squad and also only have four who started that day remaining.
Vale have played six friendlies prior to the start of the season wining 4 including a 6 - 0 victory over Upper Annandale our Challenge Cup opposition in late November. They also won at Penicuik but lost to Leith Athletic and Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale. As ever and with our own friendly results it's impossible to know how much to read into these.
Our squad has seen major changes with a raft of new faces coming in. If I was to pick one headline signing who could make a big difference I would highlight midfielder Jordan Sinclair who joined from Edinburgh City and who will hopefully bring something to the middle of the park. Up front Calum Smith will be starting his first full season for us having joined in January and shown promise and there are high hopes for Lewis Allan. A late addition to the squad is defender Ryan Finnie. There is a lot of optimism within the club regarding the signings and the squad with hopes that we will push on this season after last season's disappointing (I'm being polite here) campaign. It also looks like we will be free from the off the pitch issues that have marred the last few years.
The opening game is being streamed by the club and will be available free to view. This is an excellent initiative for the first streamed game especially as some clubs had a lot of issues with their streaming of league cup games. You can also buy a digital programme and enter the half time draw. All details here https://berwickrangers.com/gers-to-stream-opening-lowland-league-fixture-free-of-charge/
*For now anyway