By Jacob Greenwood
The 2020/21 season finally got underway last weekend following confirmation that a support package would be provided by the UK government. Away from the corridors of power, an army of volunteers have been hard at work to make grounds COVID-secure. We caught up with Woking supporter and COVID-19 Officer Nick Davidson to find out how he has ensured we are able to play on at Kingfield.
Thanks for taking the time to join us, Nick. The opening day was a success on the pitch, how did things run off the pitch in what must have been strange circumstances for everyone involved?
Marvelous wasn’t it? So good to have our players back out on our pitch in a competitive game. As you know Sheerwater have been playing since September so to have Woking back for a day was brilliant. To answer the question, it was incredibly busy as there were so few people around to make sure the game went safely. For me it went so fast and was a bit of a blur. I think I got to see about five minutes as I was running around everywhere but overall, it was a great success. So much has to be in place to get the games on as all the normal preparations you would expect still have to be undertaken but with hardly any staff or volunteers. The preparation paid off but not everything went to plan, such as the away coach turning up in the wrong place!
As fans who tuned into the live stream will have seen, there were still a limited amount of people in the ground. How many people are in the team that allow us to get the games on and what type of roles do they play?
When I first looked at how many people were required under normal conditions I was quite amazed. Obviously we no longer have the fans so facilities and services are heavily restricted but you still need the groundsmen, kitmen, stewards and car parking marshals. You still need people on the gates and security to ensure only the authorised people are allowed in. In fact, that role is even harder now due to all the extra health checks and protocols that have to be followed and that’s not a one person job, especially as the stadium is split into sterile zones to restrict any contamination. So you need one person for each role in each zone.
We have cleaners and sanitisers to make sure areas where people pass through are cleaned after use as well as the equipment used in between sessions on the pitch. Media is massive now (not compared to BT or Sky of course) but because people can’t get in, we have a duty to both sets of fans to get what coverage we can out. Even including all the photographers, BBC radio and our camera crew, the list of WFC media was under 10 people. That’s fantastic considering the product they produce. We also have certain concessions to provide the FA and the National League with as we have to give access to people such as assessors for the referee, analysts for sports companies and scouts from other teams playing the opposition over the next few weeks.
There certainly wasn’t anyone in there for a jolly! On top of the essential staff you then have around 35-40 from the opposition playing squad, staff and directors/owners are also allowed in by directive of The National League. Add that to our playing staff and the referees etc and already you are around the 100 mark to just get the game on.
Solihull seemed to also have supporters in attendance. Is this part of the rules set by The National League?
There were 39 from Solihull including their match day team and support staff. There certainly were not any supporters other than directors and the squad unless we have any closet Solihull fans amongst us!
The minimum numbers allowed in are set by The National League but obviously if we had a bigger, more modern stadium that allowed us to sit 20 players each in a changing room, we would. But we haven’t. Our small decrepit stadium has actually worked to help keep the numbers to minimal levels and close off the vast majority of it.
It’s hard for fans not attending to get an idea of the size of the operation on matchdays – what are some of the protocols in place to get the games on that they might not be aware of?
Crikey, It’s been a whole rewrite of football as we know it. It starts at home with players expected to arrive with kit on and almost ready to run out. The same for the referees as well. Car sharing has rules about masks, hygiene, keeping to the same car and passengers, filling with fuel wearing gloves and even parking has to be socially distanced!
Once in the ground there are health screening questions for every single person coming over the threshold as well as temperature checks and the obligatory one way systems to follow. As I said earlier there are zones you can and cannot go in, the balls, corner flags and goal posts have to be cleaned in breaks of play and even directions on cleaning kit, clearing rubbish and sanitizing the seats in the ground after use. There are over 150 pages in our protocols for different stages and situations and that’s before we can even let fans back in!
The walk out protocol has changed as well as the ‘Respect Handshake’. Players are now asked to respectfully sanitize their hands instead – genuinely!
A lot of the people involved, including yourself, are just regular fans who have volunteered to help the club, how did you get involved and how are you finding the role?
I’m still trying to figure that one out to be honest! No seriously, I have volunteered behind the scenes for a while with safeguarding and welfare. I’ve also known Sam Loxton through our sons’ football and Rupert Phillips on the Cards Trust for quite a while. Since I fell out of love with the Premier League I found I was doing more and more at Woking, picking up litter, fixing the odd fence, selling Goldrush or whatever needed doing. It always felt like the right thing to do to help our community. I love the way everyone speaks to everyone else no matter who they are when at the ground and that family feeling you get when everyone looks out for you.
The role of Covid Officer has been consuming and I’ve had to take several weeks leave over the summer to make sure we were ahead of the play. It’s now paying off with only minor adjustments needed and not whole rewrites which is good. It’s also comforting to know that Rosemary has my back on any decisions as they are always unpopular as to why we can’t do what we normally do under new guidance.
I want to put into print my thanks to all the players and management staff for buying into all the changes that we have implemented. Players are often portrayed in a negative light with unreasonable demands – but not these guys. Straight from day one of training they were on it and followed the protocols to the letter and I really can’t thank them enough for making that so easy for me. They want to go home safe as well.
Other days I resent the role as I finish working in London, travel home and plough straight on with the emails and legislation changes for the day, missing out on family time or days out. Still, it’s the price to pay for doing all we can to make sure there is still a club there and the end of all this.
Are plans underway to get fans back in once the government allows this and will you need more volunteers?
Yes, most certainly! We are pretty much ready for when fans are allowed thanks to sterling work by Dave Curtis the operations manager and Neill Morrison one of the Directors with the Stage 5 protocols. There will be changes to where we left last season with social distancing, one way systems, pre-sale tickets and cashless payment across the club to name the most obvious, and we will need volunteers more than ever. When we get to that stage we will release more details but we are being ever so careful not to promise what we cant deliver or give time scales as who knows what the future brings with COVID.
All I can promise is that if we keep pulling together there will be a Woking FC and if we follow the guidance from Public Health England, we will all hopefully get through fit and healthy. All I want is to have a full Laithwaite Stadium and not worry about who we stand next to anymore.
Stay Safe. Nick.
Images by David Holmes. A full set can be found at wokingfc.co.uk