For the first time since March 2020, we have witnessed full Premier League stadiums as football fans return. And what a sight it was to behold.
There were cheers, jeers and tears as Premier League grounds once more filled up with fans. After 18 months of lockdowns and government restrictions, it was a very overdue return to normality. It won’t be taken for granted again.
More than any other sport, football relies on the soundtrack of the terraces to pitch the tempo of the players. Behind closed doors, the product quickly became very stale. The TV sound effects were only half effective, whilst the sight of empty stadiums only served to remind fans what they were missing.
It was tough for players too, who were rushed back out of inactivity with minimal preparation for Project Restart. They were castigated by government ministers for their supposed greed and rule-breaking. They had no support, the possibility of their employment being shut down, and even threatened with sanctions for the crime of celebrating a goal. It was understandable that the football on display often matched the lethargy of lockdowns.
The Return of Premier League Fans
The Road to Normality
There were limited attendance fixtures in May. But the cautious nature – masks, spacing, no drinks – made for a damp squib. It wasn’t a case of ‘good to be back’, rather a heightened desire for the real event to return.
The knock-out Euro 2020 fixtures at Wembley produced fantastic atmospheres. But the government only reduced the capacity to 66,000 (not accounting for the security breaches). What this was meant to achieve in the name of public health is anyone’s guess. There could have been a full stadium and not make any epidemiological difference. It was the worst of all worlds.
In a landscape dominated by the Premier League, many EFL followers will feel aggrieved at being overlooked. There were full houses and healthy away followings abundant as the lower leagues kicked off last week.
But the size of the followings and stadia for top-flight clubs means this weekend was always earmarked as a landmark. The 72,732 at Old Trafford represented the largest (official) gathering in the UK since March 2020. Images of full crowds, the majority of whom were vaccinated and unmasked, were broadcast around the world.
France’s Ligue 1 is the only other major league to see football fans return, and even that is through the controversial pass sanitaire.
The Importance of Football and Fans
Bill Shankly once remarked: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Observers sometimes overlook the tongue-in-cheek nature in which he spoke. But there is a certain degree of accuracy, in the sentiment at least.
The trials and tribulations of 22 players ultimately pale into insignificance compared to international and political events unfolding worldwide. But to paraphrase Pope John Paul II, or possibly Arrigo Sacchi, it is precisely because of that unimportance that it matters so much.
The emotions of life, the jubilations and struggles and all accompanying emotions, all seem to express themselves through the parallel triviality of sport. It’s an excuse to be happy, to be sad, to sing, to cheer, to come together with others.
Attention naturally falls to the stands as football fans return. But what some fail to understand is that it’s not just the 90 minutes that occupy you. It’s the pre and post-match rituals, those social idiosyncrasies that define our time on this mortal coil. The beers on the train, chatting with strangers in uncharacteristic (British) friendliness about VAR or the virtues of five at the back.
It’s the trip to the bookmakers to waste a fiver on the first scorer market. It’s meeting your mates to chew the fat about love and life, taking in the throng of humanity and the dangerously undercooked burgers. It’s the story of life, in all its perfections and imperfections.
In another one of those ubiquitous quotes, “football without fans,” really is nothing. Let us never go back to that again.