Never has a Europa League dead rubber carried this much weight. Arsenal can do more or less as they please when Rapid Vienna visit on Thursday, with qualification from Group B assured and top spot almost certain. They might, however, feel possessed to play out of their skins. In normal times this would be the toughest sell of the season but, for many of the 2,000 supporters who will be allowed inside the Emirates, its meaning is beyond measure.
“A historic moment for the club,” is how Arsenal hailed the reopening of their turnstiles, which will click back into action before those at any other top-flight club owing to the calendar’s quirks. It will come almost nine months after Arsenal beat West Ham with a goal from Alexandre Lacazette. That brought a near-capacity house down but then football fell silent; its return in front of gaping, windswept stands has felt decidedly strange but now a slice of what makes the sport beautiful is coming back, too.
“The club have worked hard on this,” says Tim Payton, a board member of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust. “I’d praise them for running something that, while it will cost them money, is the right thing to do. There’s a kind of moral, community aspect to making sure the fans can start to return.”
A painstaking set of plans now springs into action. On a typical match day the club employ around 900 stewards inside and around the stadium. Under the present conditions there will be 350: that might appear a relatively high figure but a number of new roles have been created to ensure fans are complying with Covid-19 protocols and temperature checks can be conducted.
Arsenal had hoped up to 15,000 supporters would be back to watch the Premier League game with Sheffield United on 3 October. Those ambitions were scotched by the resurgence of Covid-19 and the scene will be significantly different this time. Fans will rattle around a stadium that is 3% full and, for Europa League games at least, must sit two seats apart even if they are in the same “bubble”.
It is football, albeit not as anyone bar those who have trickled in for occasional under-23s or FA Youth Cup games have known it. But the symbolism is inescapable: the deadening and pent-up experience of watching behind-closed-doors fixtures from the sofa may slowly be on its way out.
“There’s a sense of excitement, and that goes beyond the football on the pitch,” Payton says. “If you’re a season-ticket holder it’s a big part of how you construct your life every year. It’s your ritual, your bond in many ways. If you go 25 times a year it might be the most familiar element of your social life.”
Should the status quo remain, most of the 22,000 who have entered Arsenal’s ballot for reduced-capacity games will have to settle for a maximum of two this season. For some, that will be enough: a pared-down experience is not for everyone and the novelty of cheering into a wintry void may fade quickly. But for those who embrace it, the revelations may prove rewarding. Exactly what do the players and staff shout to one another on the pitch? It is the best-ever chance to find out. Is it, in practice, much different from what you will hear among your park team? Spoiler: much of the time, probably not.
In that sense, social distance may bring a new proximity. It will work for the players, too, with praise and criticism ringing more starkly through the air. Mikel Arteta, for one, will welcome that. Arsenal’s home form has been mediocre and the manager is convinced players and fans must undergo a journey together. “I want them to see closely, not on TV, but really closely, what the team is trying to do and what the players are putting in so they can feel that connection with them,” he said last month.
Should events at Arsenal and elsewhere pass smoothly, the hope is Arteta will be able to sweep many more along with him by the spring. There is a degree of trust involved in making that happen: while Arsenal will not sell tickets to any supporter based in a tier 3 area, for example, they must still hope nobody finds a way to circumvent that guidance.
“It’s a very important test of Arsenal’s arrangements and how it can be done,” Payton says. “We would be looking for the government and relevant authorities to increase the numbers in the new year, based on the learnings from it.” Nobody who takes their seat for Rapid’s visit is likely to forget what they have seen and felt.