ince I was a boy one of my favourite sounds inside a football ground would usually occur during the opening minutes of an evening game in the winter, when a centre-half would do something mundane such as head the ball back to the goalkeeper and thousands of gloved hands would pump together, creating a wintry sonic boom.
Never did I foresee attending an evening game in December to the sound of muffled singing beneath mandatory face masks. I was at the final match at Highbury and the first game at the Emirates but in years to come how will I view attending the first game with fans allowed back at Emirates Stadium during a pandemic?
The pre-match routines were different, of course. It’s not possible to meet a group of mates and a handful of acquaintances in the pub. Instead, 12 of us gathered in two groups of six underneath a railway bridge and drank from tins like 14-year olds. I didn’t expect to become emotional but as we entered through the turnstiles and the stewards applauded the fans one by one it choked me up.
It made me think of going to Highbury with my grandparents, my mum, my sister, of coming to games with my wife – none could be there on Thursday for various reasons – and I must admit I ‘had a moment’. Inside it was business as usual as we quickly reconnected with the stadium experience, shouting utterly redundant advice in support of our team: “To him! To him!” or “Take him on, Nico!”
The players applauded us warmly before kick-off and though this was not a return to normality by any means, it was a night for reconnection – with the players, our friends, our matchday muscle memory. As the stewards clapped and whooped each supporter, it was a reminder that to be a fan is to be part of a community and that a matchday is a precious ritual.