THE clamour to allow a phased return of supporters to football grounds is understandable. At the professional level of the men’s game, the sport has been closeted behind-closed-doors for almost half-a-year now, and the effects are becoming increasingly obvious.

Fans are missing their footballing fix, and clubs from the top of the Premier League to the bottom of League Two are fearing for their financial future. The EFL claims it is costing its 72 clubs a combined £20m for every month that games take place without supporters in attendance.

Given that most Football League clubs were sailing close to the wind financially before the coronavirus pandemic struck, it is unlikely to be long before the sums start to become unsustainable. Macclesfield Town’s liquidation on Wednesday was a result of long-term financial mismanagement rather than anything to do with Covid-19. But the disappearance of such a historic and familiar name nevertheless underlined just how vulnerable a position many lower-league clubs find themselves in.

So, with all of that in mind, the fact that eight of Saturday’s EFL games – including Middlesbrough’s home match with Bournemouth – will be played in front of up to 1,000 fans is surely a welcome step in the right direction?

It is not the 25 per cent to 35 per cent capacity that clubs were anticipating to be permitted from October 1 – a Government pledge that is currently officially “under review” – but it is a signal that the footballing world is finally starting to edge back towards normality. Isn’t that to be welcomed?

Maybe. But then again in the current climate, where huge swathes of the North-East are now the subject of stringent new local lockdown regulations and where Middlesbrough’s own manager is isolating after recording a positive coronavirus test, football has to be very careful that it does not push too far, too soon. Get this wrong, and the process of restoring normality could be halted before it has really begun.

Clubs in the Premier League and EFL are adamant they can safely admit around a quarter of their usual capacity while still abiding with social-distancing regulations. Middlesbrough are certainly confident there will be no risk to the 1,000 fans attending the Riverside on Saturday, and club officials have been working assiduously in the last few days to ensure all necessary plans and rules are in place. The fact that applications for the 1,000 available tickets heavily outweighed the available capacity shows that supporters are not fearful of returning to football grounds.

Even so, football needs to be mindful of the way in which its gradual reopening is perceived. It is not Middlesbrough’s fault, but the sight of 1,000 fans watching on in the Riverside this weekend is not going to be an especially good look when posited against the restrictions announced by the Government today.

The Tees Valley is not affected by the latest local lockdown rules, but the border of County Durham, which does fall under the new regulations, skirts around Newton Aycliffe and passes between Sedgefield and Wynyard. At its closest point, it lies around 11 miles from the Riverside Stadium.

So, on Saturday, you are going to have a scenario where a Middlesbrough supporter can walk to the game with a group of five friends, all from different households, but 11 miles away, a grandparent cannot even meet up with their grandchild. A Boro fan living in Newton Aycliffe cannot meet a friend in a park, but their counterpart living in Stockton can take a bus to the Riverside. Get married in Middlesbrough on Saturday, and you will only be able to have up to 28 guests. Watch the Boro, and you can be with 999 other people, albeit with social-distancing rules in place.

Again, it is important to point out that Middlesbrough have done nothing wrong here. If anything, the club are to be applauded for being so proactive that they were selected as one of the EFL’s pilot venues.

But football as a whole cannot assume its efforts to open up will be applauded and accepted while so much of the rest of the society is shutting back down. If, as is eminently possible with the way the figures are heading, there is an increase in coronavirus cases on Teesside in the next week or so, it is a safe bet that some people will point the figure at Saturday’s game and find a causal link even if one does not exist.

Even now, March’s Cheltenham Festival is held up as a key factor in the initial spread of coronavirus in this country, even though a clear statistical link has never been established.

A joint statement issued by the EFL, Premier League, ECB, Lawn Tennis Association, Rugby Football Union, Rugby Football League and British Horseracing Authority on Wednesday spelled out the urgent importance of fans returning. “It is clear that if fans cannot return soon that there will be very serious economic implications across our sporting sector,” the various bodies said.

Leaving aside the fact the statement was released on the same day that Tottenham were in discussions to pay Gareth Bale £650,000-a-week – a jarring juxtaposition – it is clear that the financial picture across a range of sports is becoming increasingly bleak.

That is true of a whole host of economic sectors though, not to mention the huge social and emotional strain that tightened lockdown rules are having on families and individuals right across the country, and in light of today’s developments, with special acuteness here in the North-East.

Football, for all of its positive aspects, is not a special case. The more it tries to become one, the more the public at large will feel it is out of step with the communities and supporters it purports to serve.