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The return of fans to football matches: a big win for supporters and teams alike?

Caitlin Murray analyses the effects fans will bring upon return to stadia.

Love it or hate it, artificial crowd noise has become a staple of televised British football since ‘Project Restart’ kicked-off back in Summer 2020. It has polarised football fans, broadcasters, players and managers alike. For Bristol City manager Nigel Pearson, it “got on his nerves” so much he ordered it to be turned off at Ashton Gate for their recent fixture against Nottingham Forest in the Championship. Whereas, if you’re anything like me, you may have become so accustomed to the ‘fake’ crowd noise that you don’t even notice it anymore. Either way, the days of listening to artificial crowd noise appear to be numbered, with the return of fans to football grounds pencilled in for this summer. The first of the pilot events is scheduled for the FA Cup semi-final between Leicester and Southampton on Sunday 18th April 2021 where 4,000 local residents will be allowed to attend the game. If this pilot event, alongside others including the Carabao Cup Final and FA Cup Final at Wembley are successful, “up to 10,000 people or 25% of total seated capacity, whichever is lower” will be allowed in stadiums for sporting events from the 17th May.

Without fans in the stadiums, some may argue their team has lost their home advantage. Statistics would support that claim, with the probability of the home team in a Premier League fixture losing rising by 4% since fans have been unable to attend games. The particular losers from playing behind-closed-doors include Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield United and Brighton. Specifically, the Premier League holders, Liverpool, have uncharacteristically only managed to score three goals at Anfield in 2021, and have dropped 20% more points without fans in the stadium compared to pre-pandemic. On the other hand, teams like West Ham have thrived without fans transforming from a team fighting to stay in the division at all, to challenging for a Champions league place. A pertinent question, which only time will tell, is whether the return of fans will restore the ‘home advantage’ back to pre-pandemic normality, or the loss of ‘home advantage’ will be a part of the ‘new-normal’ for footballers and fans alike.

Should the pilot events be successful, it is likely that the clash between Newcastle and Fulham, on the final day of the season with both teams fighting to remain in the division, will be played in front of 10,000 Fulham supporters. I am almost certain Fulham will welcome this home advantage, whilst Newcastle will highlight the unfairness of a fixture of this magnitude being played without representation of their supporters. Whilst we are all eager to return to watching our beloved teams in person, fixtures such as these raise the question of whether it is fair to have fans return at such a crucial point in the season when so much is at stake.

Another factor to consider is how the players themselves will respond. It has been more than a calendar year since games began being played behind-closed-doors, and much like fans have become used to hearing artificial crowd noise, I imagine some players have also become accustomed to playing to empty stadiums. Many Premier League players have referenced the importance of fans and how much they have been missed during this period; therefore, I am sure players cannot wait for the return of the ‘12th-man’ to stadiums very soon.

For teams under particular pressure, however, will fans returning in time for the end of the Premier League season be a positive force or will it just increase the burden on managers already under heavy scrutiny? Put differently, have some Premier League managers and players had it ‘too easy’ without fans being able to visibly show their reactions to games and performances? As much as fans are the ‘12th-man’ and can offer support and encouragement at crucial points in games, they also make their feelings very clear when they feel their teams aren’t performing. With many Newcastle fans venting their frustration towards both their owner Mike Ashley and manager Steve Bruce on social media, it will be interesting to see how the return of supporters to St James’ Park unfolds in the near future. Likewise, would Liverpool supporters have been sympathetic of their teams drop in form this season, particularly at home, had they been present at Anfield?

With only three managerial casualties this season, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a lack of fans has kept a few managers in employment where club owners would have probably responded to fan pressure had their frustrations been highlighted at stadiums each weekend. Equally, you could argue that the lack of visible pressure from fans every week has allowed managers to focus on the job at hand rather than being distracted by speculation about their job status.

All in all, the pandemic and subsequent empty stadiums have highlighted the importance of fans. There remain a number of question marks surrounding how players, managers and fans alike will respond to the return of spectators at football matches, but I suppose the vast majority of fans cannot wait for the day they can finally walk through the turnstiles again and cheer on their team, albeit with a face mask on. Only time will tell whether such a return will benefit the ‘Big six’ the most, or whether the return of supporters will offer huge boosts to the smaller teams in the Premier League. One thing is for sure, given that the first of three pilot events is to be played imminently at Wembley Stadium, I am sure millions of football fans in the UK, eager to return to watch their beloved teams in action will be watching the games extra-closely, if not with a slight hint of jealously towards the lucky few able to return early.

Image credit: Steffen Prößdorf via BuliNews (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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