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Before the England-Scotland match on Friday, there was concern among publicans and bar staff that the game would be too exciting. Mayhem would descend when a goal was scored. Government-mandated social distancing would be impossible to enforce as fans enacted the 2021 reboot of Gazza’s dentist chair.
“Celebrating is slightly different now,” admitted Jack Harvey, assistant manager of The Great Southern pub in Gipsy Hill, south London. “You can jump up and down for two seconds and then I have to be the arsehole and make you sit down. Which is fun.”
Harvey needn’t have worried. The match was a 0-0 squib; it was a fixture with so few flashpoints that it might have been choreographed by Professor Chris Whitty and Dr Gregor Smith, the chief medical officers for England and Scotland respectively, to guarantee the lowest possible Covid transmission.
There is little doubt that the Euro 2020 tournament has been a different, probably more sober, experience for many spectators. Because of ongoing restrictions on household mixing and table service, many hospitality venues say they can only accommodate about 50% – and sometimes just 30% – of the customers they would expect for big football matches.
Moreover, not everyone has been happy to return to pubs, either because of concerns for their health or because they feel the experience of watching games there will be compromised. According to a survey of 1,000 pubgoers this month for the British Beer and Pub Association, 85% of football fans were fearful their experience of watching the Euros would be “negatively impacted” by the Covid measures.
So, has this meant a lower engagement with these Euros? Well, almost 20 million people in the UK tuned in to the England-Scotland match on ITV, a record for the year. But overall, the numbers are lower than in recent tournaments. England’s opening game, the 1-0 victory against Croatia, was watched by a peak audience of 11.6 million. This compares unfavourably with the team’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup against Tunisia, which had a peak audience of 18.3 million, and their opener in the 2016 Euros, where a peak of more than 14 million people watched England draw against Russia.
Some of this drop-off could be down to changes in the way that many of us watch television. Previously, the strongest competition for an England fixture would be EastEnders or Coronation Street now Euro 2020 games are up against the new Loki series on Disney+ and all the other subscription services that so many of us became addicted to in lockdown.
But perhaps a bigger factor might be the death of the office. Excitement and engagement with previous tournaments will have been boosted by water-cooler chats about last night’s game, nipping off to the pub for a lunchtime kick-off or a sweepstake on who is going to win. At its most dysfunctional, it would have meant researching who takes the penalties for North Macedonia (Ezgjan Alioski) so you could take down your colleagues in the office fantasy football league. With remote working, such workplace bonding – aka time-wasting – starts to feel strangely anachronistic.
All football tournaments take time to build momentum with fans at home. The really huge viewing figures come in the knockout stages
In England, there appears to be a distinct lack of flags, too. During past tournaments, the cross of St George could often be seen flying outside pubs – bedsheet-sized flags hanging from windows, and their tiny equivalents fluttering on cars. This time, though, the red and white is missing in action – in a half-hour walk to a pub on Friday night, I didn’t see a single St George’s flag in a window or car.
For Scotland and Wales fans, the experience seems to be different. This is, after all, the first major tournament that the Scottish team has qualified for since 1998. For the Welsh, meanwhile, it’s only their second major tournament since the 1958 World Cup. Sales of Wales home replica kits increased by 247% from April to May this year, according to Love the Sales, a retail fashion marketplace that tracks the prices of more than 6 million products. In the same period, Scotland’s home kit saw a 236% increase.
It may just be too early to call. Historically, all football tournaments take time to build momentum with fans at home. The really huge viewing figures come in the knockout stages, such as the 24.3 million audience that watched England lose to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final. The fact that Covid restrictions will still be in place for the quarter-finals through to the final is clearly a concern for the hospitality industry. Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), sees it as another blow for a sector that has already been hit hard financially by the lockdowns and which has been particularly disgruntled that restrictions will remain in place over the coming weeks.
Kill and the NTIA are pressing for the government to reconsider, and he thinks the issue will become particularly urgent if a home nation reaches the knockout stages. “We’re going to see illegal parties crop up here, there and everywhere with people getting frustrated,” he said. “And I don’t think people should worry about coming to pubs, bars and restaurants: we’re still going to work hard to make sure these are safe environments one way or another – just within social distancing and table service that makes it very, very difficult.”