Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Back in the game

In the immediate years after the Second World War, attendances for football matches in the UK increased significantly. By 1948-49, attendances reached 41 million, the peak for the Football League. To put that in context, the total attendance for the Premier League and EFL in 2018-19- the last full season with fans in stadiums- was around 32 million.

The reasons for this are reasonably obvious, as the football calendar as everyone had known it was suspended for seven years. Plenty of unofficial matches took place during the war and many had healthy attendances. However, the return of the Football League signalled a return to routine and a sense of normality after six years of devastation.

It’s not my intention per se to draw a direct correlation between the Second World War and the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s just that the pandemic marks the first frisson in the football calendar since the war and the first time that attending live football ceased to be an option for any period of time.

This season has marked the return of supporters to stadiums and, in my case, I have attended every Arsenal match so far, keen to savour every last droplet of the match day experience once more. At the risk of being glib about the pandemic, the 18-month hiatus from attending matches arrived at a convenient enough juncture for me.

I became a father for the first time in August 2020 so it is fair to say that my priorities in life have changed. The money I have saved has been very welcome as the extortionate price of childcare begins to bite, remote living and working means I have been able to spend more time with my daughter in her first year than most working parents are permitted.

I didn’t consciously miss going to the games in the circumstances, especially as it was far from a landmark season for Arsenal last year. Having now returned to matches, I know now that I did in fact miss something in those months. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has been a part of my life since my late teens, really (though undiagnosed for the majority of that time).

I’ve never found it totally debilitating but much like a low-level permanent physical ailment (now in my late 30s, I have several of those thank you very much!), its severity varies. Sometimes it’s a low and distant hum that I can tune out easily enough, occasionally it reaches more of a crescendo and I have to undertake some self-care.

Like lots of people, I found last winter tough in that respect. Living and working in the same four walls 24/7 whilst parenting a small child had its challenges even though my personal circumstances were pretty favourable all told. I think not having live football played its part in that, like many I lost that release valve, which is undoubtedly football’s most enduring tie.

In the coming weeks and months I will dial down my attendance a touch but for this portion of the season, I was keen to make up for 18 months of missing my fix. I was fortunate enough to be able to cover the women’s games as press during the pandemic and, as I’ve written before, I have come to prefer those games now in any case.

Clearly though, there is a distinction between covering games from a press box compared to watching in the stands- there is also slightly less 8am drinking when you’re covering an away match compared to watching one as a supporter…. Despite Arsenal’s less than impressive start to the season, I have detected a really positive atmosphere at the matches so far.

There is usually a distinction between the home and away support but in recent seasons, the away support had become a lot more morose and tetchy. The team’s decline, the divisive last few seasons under Arsene Wenger’s management and the fact that away tickets didn’t really circulate beyond the same core of people led to an atmosphere of quiet disapproval.

I have detected very little of that this season. Even at the Emirates, which is usually a largely disengaged audience half looking up from their phones or crossword puzzles, there has been greater buoyancy despite the fact that the team has been, arguably, worse than ever. I think there are many factors behind this.

The main explanation is probably similar to the reason crowds boomed in the wake of the Second World War- people who have been able to go back are just grateful to be there and to be inching towards some semblance of normality. These also remain uncertain times; nobody can say for sure that full crowds will be allowed throughout the winter.

The lingering threat of another short winter lockdown remains so there might also be a sense of making the most of the situation while it’s possible to do so. And let’s face it, Arsenal aren’t even expected to compete for the top four this season, the defeats probably just feel like they matter less now. There is a value to finishing 5th instead of 6th, or 6th instead of 7th but not one that resonates in an emotional way.

In terms of the away crowd, I think there are a few other factors at play. For people that travel to away games, going to football is a huge part of their life that just went missing for 18 months. I have regularly been attending away games for 20 years and there are hundreds who have been doing it for double that time and more.

These people didn’t just lose a weekend hobby during the pandemic, a lot of their familial and social ties exist in these occasions. I also think there has been a slight reset in the away crowd too. This season, Arsenal abolished the long-standing away ticket scheme (of which I was a member). This is an away season ticket held by around 1,000 fans.

It meant that you were guaranteed a ticket for every Arsenal domestic away fixture, the ticket is sent to you and the money deducted from your account. For the next two seasons, there is a protected period for the legacy away schemers, meaning they have the first ticket-buying window and a chance to keep themselves at the tip of the away credits mountain once the away scheme totally ceases to exist in two years’ time.

Arsenal took the opportunity to refresh their approach to away ticketing as some memberships were used only in the protectionist sense. Some members sold tickets on for all but the most in-demand away matches, it meaning they could ensure themselves a ticket for Spurs or Chelsea away. The pandemic also reset the away credit ceiling. Pre-covid, many members had 50-60 away credits, which made the ceiling high for new entrants to the away day experience.

Now this ceiling has been lowered to around 30 credits due to the number of games played behind closed doors. Manchester City away sold out to those on zero away credits, as did West Brom, Brighton has recently sold out to five credits. There are plenty of people who are, understandably, either reticent or just unable to return to games at this stage for myriad reasons.

It means there is some new blood in the away end and that will have a small impact on the atmosphere compared to people who go to every single game and probably take it for granted a little. Excitement creates atmosphere. There is renewal in the playing squad too and even if the jury is out on Mikel Arteta, there are plenty of new players to get behind who have yet to scar supporters with impressions of incompetence or apathy.

All of those things might yet be on the horizon, of course and pretty soon, I think the novelty of attending matches will fade a little and will likely reduce the recent ‘boom’ we have experienced in the stadium experience. For now though, it has felt revitalised, new and, dare I say, grateful?

For MC

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