Cliched it may be, but there has never been so much irrefutable evidence that football is nothing without fans back in stadiums. Strip it back, take out all the noise and anticipation, and it doesn’t feel much like sport. It is business, with boxes being ticked week to week. If it goes on much longer, we all may start to question what the point of it all is.
Fortunately, with the pandemic hopefully in the process of winding down, a reminder of why football means so much is just around the corner. Supporters are set to return to Premier League grounds for the final two games of the season; after intermittent appearances for a small number in certain regions of the country in the winter before more plans were scrapped, the fact that there will be up to 10,000 fans in every stadium makes this feel like a seminal moment.
Actually going to the match is not what most people have missed. The result may be a referendum on whether their day out has been a success or not but it is more about the community, the pints in the bar beforehand and the sense of spectacle as they walk up the street and see the stands for the first time.
It is the routine and the structure football brings; these are the things which have been ripped away from thousands for over a year now. Watching the matches on TV still affords them the chance to mark out their calendars, but a slice of normality will certainly be welcomed back by the masses when fans are in stadiums again.
Publicly, clubs will say they are glad to open their doors and, perhaps from a financial perspective, it would be sincere. But there will be some who may not be too pleased to bring back the noise and everything that comes with that.
For Manchester City, being able to share a third title success in four years with their fans will be most welcome, Even better, there will be some City fans travelling to Porto at the end of the month after it was announced as the new venue for the Champions League final against Chelsea. Istanbul, the original host, is on the UK government’s ‘red list’ making non-essential travel there illegal. There had been hopes of a Wembley showpiece but admission of UEFA delegates by suspending quarantine rules was not something the UK government were willing to sanction.
For Leeds United, the presence of fans back in Elland Road will be felt more than most stadiums. Their return to the top flight after a 16-year long exile has been an incredibly successful one, but the wait for the full experience goes on. That won’t happen until all restrictions are lifted, and there will be a reset on the excitement at Elland Road for that reason; perhaps their Premier League honeymoon period will be extended. It almost certainly will be if Marcelo Bielsa signs a new contract.
Manchester United’s hefty security presence for their rearranged fixture against Liverpool on Thursday night was understandable given the volume and nature of protests against the Glazer family. They saw the match postponed originally, when fans broke onto the Old Trafford pitch, and caused trouble again this week, when the Liverpool team bus was blocked off and had its tyres slashed.
It would be naïve not to assume that there is trepidation ahead of fans taking their seats in the stadium against Fulham. While the atmosphere will be hot and fiery, it could be vitriolic towards the club’s extremely negligent and harmful ownership.
Minus the fears over active protesters, it could be a very similar story at St James’ Park. Newcastle United fans have not seen their team score a goal live since Isaac Hayden’s stoppage time winner against Chelsea in mid-January last year and they will also be looking to voice their displeasure. It has long been said that Steve Bruce is lucky that fans have not been in attendance with that, and press conferences, being done over video link, there has been management of the message both in and out of the club.
That barrier will lift when fans are back in stadiums next week and Sheffield United head to Tyneside. Although the outlook on Newcastle is more positive than it was a month ago with safety now secured and the team’s form improving, Bruce remains an unpopular figure among the fanbase, many of whom believe he fanned the flames of their anger with a recent interview on Talksport, in which he discussed their expectation levels
Newcastle fans have felt taken for granted for a long time and the accusation that they demand too much despite filling out St James’ Park for much of Mike Ashley’s ownership is what led 10,000 fans to walk away before the start of last season. It isn’t spoken about nearly enough, but so many felt so disenfranchised that they refused to return.
There have even been issues with the application process for this next game, with those who took their season-ticket money back from the club due to the pandemic seemingly punished by not being able to go. The people who do, while undoubtedly relieved to get a semblance of their old lives back, are not likely to sit quietly.
It has become a mantra for football to say how important fans are throughout these unprecedented times but the last year has shone a light on examples where that simply hasn’t been true. As joyous as it’ll be to hear the roar of fans back in stadiums and that authentic, beautiful hum of people bustling and chanting, again, some boardrooms will have broader smiles than others at that very prospect.
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