While fans of sides in England’s top six divisions have been kept away during the coronavirus pandemic, supporters of grassroots clubs have been able to continue going to games.
The FA Cup’s early rounds have seen these football worlds collide, with different rules on crowds depending on the level of the teams involved.
Three clubs hoping to make the first round proper for the very first time are having to play without fans on Saturday – and BBC Sport spoke to some about missing possibly the biggest game in their team’s history.
‘I was tempted to drive seven hours anyway’
Yorkshire side Marske United are one of two teams from the extra preliminary round who are still left in the FA Cup, having won five games – all in front of spectators – to reach the fourth qualifying round.
However, being drawn away at Brackley means supporters such as Derek Whiley are unable to attend because their opponents play in National League North, which is deemed an ‘elite level’.
“To not be able to go, I’m actually gutted. It [reaching the FA Cup first round] could be once in a lifetime for some of us,” Whiley told BBC Sport.
“Brackley is in Covid tier one and they have a ground capacity of 3,500 – you’d think there’d be chance to socially distance in there. Even if you had a few hundred you could space them out.”
Whiley has lived in the fishing village of Marske-by-the-Sea for 26 years and rarely misses a game, so was tempted to travel despite not being able to see the action.
“I was thinking, do I drive the seven-hour round trip just to support the team, stand outside the ground and show them some visible support?
“For someone to say you can’t attend that for everybody is the hardest thing but we live in hope that we beat Brackley and get a home tie in the first round.”
Fans of Southern League Premier Division South side Hartley Wintney are in the same predicament.
The only previous time the club reached this stage in 2013, they had more than 1,000 supporters to cheer them on, but Covid-19 dictates they must play behind closed doors at National League Dagenham & Redbridge.
Volunteer Pete Auchterlonie helps run the club bar and is also matchday announcer for the village side.
“The words are frustration and disappointment. This club has been around for 123 years and these things don’t come around often,” he said.
“People are scratching their heads a little bit. At step one, and given Dagenham’s heritage, you would assume they’d have the ability to host two, five or 10% of capacity and have the resource to do it. But they aren’t being given the opportunity to.”
Auchterlonie is, however, philosophical about the situation as he also supports Premier League Sheffield United, where supporters have been locked out since March.
“We count ourselves lucky the line was drawn at step three.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves – we’ve had the privilege to watch our team this season with measures, when others haven’t.”
Which ties can have what crowds?
Of the 30 fourth qualifying round ties to be played on Saturday (clubs in the National League and National League North/South are considered elite):
- Four will have home and away fans (non-elite club v non-elite club)
- Six will have home fans only (non-elite club v elite club)
- Twenty will be behind closed doors (elite club v non-elite club or elite club v elite club)
- Chorley and King’s Lynn given byes
South Shields, Ilkeston Town, Sholing and Cray Wanderers are the other sides aiming to reach the FA Cup first round for the first time, and will have supporters as their ties are at ‘non-elite’ grounds – even though the first three are all facing National League opposition.
Chairman questions crowd ‘anomalies’
The fourth qualifying round is new territory for London-based Cray Valley PM, who will be allowed just 27 people inside the stadium for their trip to National League side Maidenhead – including players.
Chairman Frank May is one of 10 committee members able to watch the club potentially make history but is frustrated that fans can attend some ties in the competition but not others.
“It is a bit of an anomaly and I can’t really see how it works. Why they can’t keep those supporters safe in a bigger ground than at our level?” he told BBC Sport.
“We’re hoping to get a stream to beam it to fans so they can come to our club to see it, which is weird – they can see it at our place but not theirs.
“It’ll just be the 10 of us in the stands cheering them on. We’ll make as much noise as possible.”