Football has been given the go-ahead to host expansive test events in April ahead of the planned reopening of stadiums on May 17.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Monday that crowds of up to 10,000 could be allowed back into stadiums for sporting events as part of the roadmap out of lockdown – which means 10,000 fans may yet be allowed to attend the FA Cup Final at Wembley despite the match being scheduled two days before supporters are allowed to return to live sport.
Within those plans to gradually ease the country out of the restrictions, permission to hold test events prior to May 17 has been granted.
Boris Johnson’s roadmap has excited fans but full capacity cannot be achieved until June 21
Arsenal celebrated an FA Cup Final triumph over rivals Chelsea last season without fans
Whitehall chiefs discussed arrangements on Tuesday for those forthcoming pilots, in the hope of releasing a schedule within weeks.
And Sportsmail understands that the Football Association is preparing to apply to Government to make the match a test event for 10,000 fans.
The success of the vaccination programme, in addition to widespread testing facilities, means there is greater scope to have larger crowds in stadiums than in previous pilot fixtures, such as the friendly between Brighton and Chelsea at the Amex Stadium in front of 2,524 spectators.
The aim to have 10,000 fans back into grounds by mid-May means the next round of pilots must be on a grander scale. The FA Cup final on May 15 and the Carabao Cup final between Manchester City and Tottenham on April 25 have been mooted as possible test events.
It initially appeared the 140th FA Cup Final was destined to miss out on spectators because the showpiece match is scheduled for May 15, two days before the start of step three.
Sources say the date of the game cannot be moved because the stadium must be handed over to UEFA soon after the match in advance of the Euros.
The pedestrian ramp leading to Wembley has been demolished and replaced by steps
However, the FA is desperate for the Cup Final to be played in front of spectators and there is also a strong argument to test the new facilities ahead of Euro 2020.
Since July last year, work has been taking place to remove the pedestrian ramp – or pedway – on the approach to the stadium and replace it with a new structure, called the ‘Olympic Steps’.
The structural aspects of the project are due to be completed this month and landscaping finished in time for the first European Championship game at Wembley between England and Croatia in Group D on Sunday June 13.
A test event with 10,000 fans will be required to demonstrate the safety of the stadium following the works.
In the circumstances, that event could be the Croatia game since the stadium capacity will be limited to 10,000 spectators anyway, under the rules set out in the roadmap.
However, FA bosses would prefer to have tested the facility in advance, before the eyes of the world are on them.
In their view, the FA Cup Final represents the best chance to do this and will also enable fans to watch the spectacle first hand.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap reveals plans to ease lockdown restrictions but, as it stands, the return of fans will come too late for the FA Cup Final on May 15
Last season’s final, in which Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2-1, was played behind closed doors as a result of the pandemic.
Of all the stadiums in the country, Wembley is the most spacious with 90,000 seats and it has wide concourses and multiple entry points, which would allow social distancing to be maintained.
Any application from the FA would be evaluated according to the Prime Minister’s four tests, which will dictate the pace of change as restrictions are eased.
They focus on the level of Covid infection, success of the vaccine roll-out, deaths and hospitalisations resulting from the virus.
In addition, government would need to consider the risk of transmission, not just in the stadium, but on public transport as fans make their way to the ground.
Once the Euros are underway there is now a possibility that the semi-finals on July 6 and 7, and the final on July 11, at Wembley, could be played in front of full houses.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won the Cup for Arsenal last season with two goals
England beat Croatia 2-1 at Wembley in the UEFA Nations League in 2018
The government’s roadmap earmarks the beginning of step four on June 21 ‘at the earliest’. If that timetable is adhered to, it would mean the return of large sporting events without social distancing, and full capacities.
However, Whitehall sources stress that step four is still a long way off and there is no certainty about when that stage will be reached.
While death rates and infections from Covid are currently falling rapidly, it is anticipated that the virus will spread more quickly after children return to school. Maintaining the high-speed roll-out of the vaccine will be crucial to easing restrictions, including the return of fans to sport.
Johnson’s roadmap sets out each stage of the lifting of lockdown.
Schools will return on March 8, and there will be a five week gap between each of the four main stages of the plan, with scientists having won the argument in government that time is needed to assess the impact at each point.
Meanwhile, the Premier League will have the final say on whether fans should be allowed back into stadiums on the final day of the season amid growing concerns for the competition’s integrity.