English Football League clubs appear ready to accept smaller crowds during a "critical 48 hours" in which sporting chiefs seek Government assurances that stadiums will reopen as planned on Oct 1.
Championship, League One and League Two clubs were on Tuesday night warned of "catastrophic consequences" facing the three tiers ahead of crunch talks between sporting bodies and Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary.
Telegraph Sport understands consensus is growing among the lower divisions that limits on numbers will need to be accepted in return for Government promises that spectators will be back.
With Boris Johnson last week introducing restrictions on all pilots to just 1,000, hope is fading that the likes of Sunderland's 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light will be a third full next month as previously planned. With Covid-19 now at its highest rate since May, plans for limits of less than 3,000 across venues have been mooted as part of a staggered return to potential 30 per cent attendances.
EFL clubs on Tuesday sent to Whitehall a list of proposed 1,000 spectator pilots to take place this weekend as part of efforts to convince ministers to stick with the plan to get stadiums open. Such a position is at odds with the Premier League, which on Friday led an outspoken attack on the Government's "heavily loss-making" new crowd restrictions. The world's most lucrative domestic competition has ruled out involvement in pilots until spectator limits are eased again.
Telegraph Sport disclosed on Monday how the EFL wants a £22 million bail-out from the Premier League for every month that the season continues without supporters. On Tuesday, in a letter to clubs, the league laid bare how it will lose another £200 million if crowds do not return this season. The EFL said the lists of pilots, which was being sent to Government on Tuesday night, were an "important step" for fans' safe return. In a letter to clubs on Tuesday morning, the EFL's head of policy John Nagle said: "We cannot guarantee at this stage that all clubs that would like to stage a pilot will be given permission to do so, as only a limited number will be approved. We are still in discussions with regard to pilot matches on other dates."
Mr Dowden will meet with sporting chiefs on Wednesday. Nagle said that "the next 48 hours are likely to be critical in terms of determining the direction of travel", adding that football was facing "an impending financial crisis as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic".
In his letter to clubs, Nagle wrote that clubs should cite the return of crowds in Belgium, Germany, France, Denmark, Austria, Poland and Switzerland as they lobby MPs.
"Failure to do so, or to at least provide any credible roadmap back to the return of fans in the near future, could have catastrophic consequences for many football clubs and the communities they represent," he added.
The letter comes after Nigel Huddleston, the Sports Minister, stated in a letter to former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch that Government remained "hopeful" fans can attend events under socially-distanced conditions from Oct 1.
The chairman of the National League, Brian Barwick, also appears open to the idea of setting a cap on fan numbers, instead of percentages, from October as a "temporary solution". Ahead of today's meeting, Mr Barwick wrote to Mr Dowden to ask the Government to "carefully consider" how its pending decision on the return of fans to football grounds will affect its clubs, their employees, and local communities.
An EFL spokesman said the league "remains in discussions with the Government about the pilot programme which may include a limited number of further pilot matches during September with capacity limited to 1,000".
"The league is clear in its view that social distancing can be applied safely in football stadiums and that having crowds at matches is an absolutely essential part of helping to protect club finances, which remain under extreme pressure," he added. "Therefore, the successful delivery of further pilots will be an important step towards getting larger number of fans into grounds safely."
The Premier League, however, says its alternative proposals for fans to return should be "activated now". Clubs had previously discussed the possibility of getting stadiums open at 50 per cent for spectators who were all tested in the days before matches.