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James Crawley

James Crawley writes

Posted Wednesday, August 4th 2021

Feature: Coming through the Covid crisis (Part 1)

In this first of a three-part series, we remember how football was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how the club responded at a time of need.

We look back on a tough 18 months but also celebrate the positives and milestones as the club continued to battle on in a period of uncertainty.

Part 1: Lockdown 

As the clock struck 4.45pm on Saturday, March 7th 2020, few of the 23,796 Bristol City and Fulham supporters would have foreseen what was to come, as they clapped the players off the Ashton Gate pitch.

This was a day of celebration as the club marked its 125 years of history and it was a fixture that would live long in the memory of those present in the stands - after all, there would be no immediate return to BS3.

Nahki Wells scored the last goal in front of supporters at Ashton Gate

Not that it was clear at the beginning. Attentions immediately turned to a trip to Blackburn Rovers and preparations continued as normal until news began to circulate that the Covid-19 virus was tightening its grip with an increase in deaths and hospital cases being reported across the country.

Then on Friday, March 19th, the day before the scheduled visit to Ewood Park, all remaining fixtures that month (included Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest) were postponed, with a planned return to play from April 3rd. As a result, and with players, staff and their families’ health and wellbeing paramount, players began training from home with individual programmes to adhere to.

The EFL confirmed that all fixtures would be postponed until April 30th at the earliest as the country went into what would be the first lockdown on Monday, March 16th 2020.

City, like all clubs and their respective fans, were looking for answers and the EFL were transparent in saying it was “unclear” by mid-April when the game would return, adding that when fixtures would eventually restart, these were “likely to be played without crowds.”

With no income being generated, the focus soon shifted to finances and temporary measures were put in place to safeguard the financial stability of the club. From first team to Academy level, all players and staff agreed steps to make sure that jobs and livelihoods could be secured.

Those measures were:

  • Players agreeing to defer a percentage of their wages for three months
  • All staff agreeing a temporary voluntary salary reduction
  • Use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furloughing) of some non-playing staff
An empty Ashton Gate

As alluded to above, this impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was not just a first team concern but one which impacted the youth groups and on May 1st it was confirmed that the 2019/20 Academy Games Programme had been terminated with immediate effect.

Another update was provided on May 13th when the EFL Board announced there would be no return to training until May 25th at the earliest. It continued its conversations across the football and political landscape regarding return to play protocols and how the 19/20 campaign could be concluded.

That date soon rolled round and it was a welcome one for the men’s first team as Failand opened its doors for the first time. However, Bristol City Women had to announce the difficult news that their season had been cancelled.

Disinfecting duties: Scott Murray at Failand

But the resumption of the 2019/20 Championship campaign was still in full focus and, despite some dodgy long hairdos, the players were back! There would be staggered arrival times, small group sessions and regular testing with not all areas of the facility accessible.

  • Players and staff attending training at Failand will be subject to an ongoing EFL-designated COVID-19 testing programme
  • Players and staff will submit a health questionnaire and temperature reading remotely every morning before being permitted to travel to the training ground
  • Staggered arrival times to ensure social distancing
  • Designated and appropriately distanced parking spaces
  • A maximum of five players will be allowed to train on the same pitch at the same time, leaving the greatest distance as possible between them, which will be at least two metres
  • A one-way system to walk to and from the car park to training pitches
  • All players and staff using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser upon entering and leaving the training ground
  • Players and staff arriving in training kit and washing kit themselves at home each day
  • Any balls and equipment used being disinfected before the next player takes to the training pitch
  • Players and staff bringing their own water bottles and supplement drinks to each session
  • Any injuries assessed without being touched and players sent home for further isolated treatment
  • Players returning to their respective cars immediately after their individual session has completed and head straight home, with no car sharing.
Callum O'Dowda...in need of a trim
Han-Noah Massengo prepares for training
Nahki Wells training on his own as part of training measures

This led to some brighter news with regards to the Championship, as the EFL confirmed by the end of the week that the season would resume over the weekend of June 20th, meaning the Robins had a new date in the diary for that journey north to Ewood Park.

The EFL’s full statement was released on May 31st, in which it was confirmed that as well as all nine of City's remaining matches would be played behind closed doors, teams would be allowed to make more substitutions in games. Football in England had a return to play date, albeit subject to various external factors, but there was a target in sight and a little under three weeks to gear up for that first kick of the ball!

It was a major update, described as some “certainty in an uncertain world” by club CEO Mark Ashton at the time, who explained the hoops jumped through and stages met along the journey to get football back.

 

City played Southampton in a friendly fixture at St Mary’s Stadium on June 12th as preparations continued, but the impact of Covid was felt a first time a few days later when one member of the Robins camp tested positive for Covid-19. The individual proved asymptomatic and completed their period of self-isolation.

The Saints hosted City ahead of Project Restart

Saturday soon rolled round, though it was the return of matchday with a few changes to the normal setup. The dressing rooms changed location, walkouts were staggered, and a lack of crowd atmosphere meant this would not be the game we had come to know.

With no fans allowed inside the grounds, Robins TV launched its matchday show with pre-game build-up, a live video stream of the action with commentary, replays and post-game analysis. This was a feature that continued into the 2020/21 season.

On the pitch however, June 2020 saw City’s return to play not go according to plan. After defeat at Blackburn, the Robins lost four of their first five games during Project Restart – as the June and July fixtures were labelled – which led to Dean Holden’s appointment as temporary Head Coach, replacing the outgoing Lee Johnson. Holden steered City to two wins, two draws and one defeat prior to his full-time appointment later that summer.

On July 24th, two days after the 19/20 campaign concluded, the EFL confirmed its dates for the 2020/21 season. It was a league campaign which would kick off on September 12th – a month later than usual – when City would host promoted Coventry City. The Robins won 2-1 on the opening day, as they went on to win each of their first four games in the Championship.

Football without fans: City in action during the 2020/21 campaign

The Carabao Cup had kicked off a week earlier, with Holden guiding his team to a 2-0 win over Exeter City and the 20/21 season continued despite further national and regional lockdowns, while the EFL delivered updates on Covid cases as clubs continued their regular player and staff testing.

Even while the game continued, football was never immune and clubs across the country faced challenges with positive Covid-19 results as areas suffered from outbreaks. City felt the impact too with a number of positive cases confirmed on November 16th, ahead of the fixture against Derby County.

The Failand training ground was closed but as those affected completed their self-isolation periods, the match was okay to go ahead. The remainder of the season would bring ups and downs for the club, with results on the pitch leading to Nigel Pearson’s appointment as Manager in February.

City Manager Nigel Pearson in the dugout v Swansea City

It ultimately proved a season of disappointment in terms of the league finish, but the summer has brought changes, new hope and optimism in a footballing world which will change for the better as fans can get excited about their long-awaited return.

More than 7,000 made it a day out for the friendly against Aston Villa in July, but thousands more will pack the Gate against Blackpool on August 7th when the new season officially gets under way!

Work of the Robins Foundation, staff and players

Away from the field, there was a heartfelt reaction from the club within the community. Thousands of families across the city were impacted by the pandemic in many ways, with their day-to-day lives suddenly changing, especially during the first lockdown in the first half of 2020.

In response, an army of volunteers supported the Robins Foundation to help provide support to those in need as Ashton Gate Stadium became a hive of charitable activity.

City’s charity arm worked alongside Ashton Gate Stadium and the other sporting charities across the Bristol Sport group to significantly increase their food delivery to vulnerable young people in Bristol. Using their in-depth knowledge of the community and their pre-existing relationships with vulnerable youngsters, the Foundation delivered more than 52,000 meals before the end of the year to those who needed them most.

Robins Foundation volunteers with food bags ready for distribution
Pictured L-R: Foundation CEO Dan White, Ashton Gate Managing Director Mark Kelly, Foundation Projects & Partnerships Manager James Edwards

The food delivery efforts of the Foundation were bolstered by a number of individuals and businesses offering to volunteer. Whether it was packaging the meals within Ashton Gate Stadium, or helping the Foundation’s staff go door-to-door to deliver the food parcels, each volunteer played a pivotal role in enabling the Foundation to support the community.

City Operations Manager Suzanne Tarring-Coombs, who had already been a volunteer with the North Bristol Foodbank, was just one of those volunteers who helped to make a difference.

She was one of the members of staff on furlough and a phone call to player Liaison Officer Matt Parsons led to volunteering with the Portishead Foodbank and from there the Robins Foundation got in touch as well.

Suzanne and a team of volunteers had a conveyer belt system in operation in the Heineken Lounge where they packed the different foods, prepared by Ashton Gate Head Chef George Opondo, before the deliveries began.

Suzanne Tarring-Coombs (left) with Scott Murray (centre) and Matt Parsons (right) during lockdown food deliveries

She said: “The Foundation was packing lunches and asked if we wanted to come down to help out. Myself, Matt and Scott Murray went initially. We did every Tuesday and Thursday and it really kept me mentally sane. You saw people at Ashton Gate and we’ve since spoken about how we kept each other going.

“When we went out to deliver the food it made you realise why we were doing it. People were really grateful, especially at the start before Government vouchers were available, but people remained grateful.

“You realise just how desperate some people were and maybe we would have been the only people they’d have seen that day. From delivering to individuals, I know I might have been the only person they would see all week.

“Covid highlighted it but there is such a massive need. I have learnt to be grateful for what I have. I think people are only one payday away from being in that situation but there is such a strong community, and we have people in the club who really care, whether that’s players or staff, and thanks to them the donations snowballed.”

It was the efforts of Han-Noah Massengo in particular, who received the PFA Player of the Year award as a result. The midfielder supplied countless food and essential goods which were transported and distributed across the city, as well as donating brand new sportswear to the Robins Foundation that was then gifted to youngsters.

Han-Noah Massengo, community champion pictured with City Chairman Jon Lansdown (left) and Matt Parsons (right)

There were countless more positive stories, from a Foundation quiz night to Jay Tinnion auctioning off his dad Brian’s City v Liverpool shirt in aid of the North Bristol NHS Trust, and youngsters of the Foundation’s NCS programme took on a sponsored walk around Bristol to raise money for Help Bristol’s Homeless. And come January, it was thanks to the generosity of City supporters that the Robins Foundation were able to provide laptops and tablets to vulnerable students still being educated at home.

How else we helped:

  • Volunteers from the sporting clubs and their associated charities have distributed 10,000 meals
  • Sports Bar used by Feed The Homeless Bristol whose food packages supporting more than 300 people
  • Bristol Food Union operating in South Stand, providing 1000 food parcels for vulnerable young adults
  • FareShareSW charity stored more than 66 tonnes of food at the stadium
Handing out food parcels in South Bristol
More food parcels ready for delivery

To everyone who played their part in changing people’s lives for the better at the most difficult time, everyone connected with Bristol City Football Club salutes you.

Read next:

Part two will be published on Thursday, looking back at how the Robins High Performance Centre was constructed during the global pandemic, including an interview with one of the people behind the project.

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