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Fans return but not as we know it

Pin Fans are back in England. AFP
Fans are back in England. AFP

Fans return but not as we know it

Fans are back in English football after months away. It is a delight to see spectators back in grounds but the restrictions mean that this time it's different.

This week has seen fans flood back into grounds in England for the first time since March. EFL games on Wednesday saw spectators watch at the Abbey Stadium in Cambridge and the Adams Park in Wycombe before Arsenal welcomed 2 000 to watch their Europa League game against Rapid Wien last night.

It was great to see bums on seats but after the initial sense of relief and joy it was impossible not to notice that things weren't quite the same...

The Gunners stormed to a 4-1 win at the Emirates, with Alexandre Lacazette sprinting over to supporters after lashing home the opener from 30 yards out. Even the Austrian players seemed to appreciate the support, making sure to applaud the opposing fans after the final whistle. However, whilst the fake crowd noise might finally be gone, all of the celebrations were notably muted.

There's something about watching football live; the excitement, the passion, the delirium. There's something about jumping into the arms of someone you've never met and getting soaked in beer. There's something about screaming and singing from the top of your voice.

Supporters might be back inside the grounds but that is all missing. New Premier League protocols discourage shouting and singing and the vital maintenance of social distancing means that the atmosphere isn't quite the same. From afar on TV the Arsenal fans often looked like cardboard cut-outs, sitting down with their hands on their laps, all neatly spaced out in a pleasing pattern

There is no doubt of course that the return of spectators is crucial at all levels of the game, even if it is whilst strict rules are still in place. Leagues and clubs across the world and forecasting record losses, but even more worrying is the impact that behind closed doors fixtures have on the teams at the lower levels of the English game. 

Almost all of the support that has arrived from government is in the form of low-interest loans that clubs will struggle to ever pay back and record numbers of clubs are facing bankrupcy up and down the pyramid. It is unclear as to whether the latest relxations will even affect the place it matters most, the lowest levels of the sport.

For most Premier League sides, 2 000 fans won't do much to offset the huge financial trouble they find themselves in. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's forecast of £150m losses won't see much of an improvement with just 3% of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium being filled for now at least. Many clubs such as Chelsea have had to raise ticket prices to make gamedays economically viable, but that hasn't gone down well either. Securing a ticket has also proved almost impossible, with social media full of complaints about all of the different ways that clubs have decided on their allocations.

For many, live football is still a long way away. Much of England remains in 'Tier 3' for the foreseeable future with matches staying behind closed doors and around the world, many are facing the harsh reality of a long wait until they can get back to their Saturday routines.

So, as much as it is a true joy to hear real crowd noise and see an end to carboard cut-outs, normality still seems a long way off. This will have to do for now, but the real questions are how long will it be and how many clubs will be left to visit once capacity crowds are back on the agenda? We have taken an important first step, but it just isn't quite the same...

Oliver Hall

Oliver Hall

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