Football fans head back to Premier League grounds

Football fans returned to Premier League stadia for the first time since December as the turnstiles at four grounds reopened yesterday (Tuesday).

Manchester United, Southampton, Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea were able to welcome fans back at their respective homes as the latest phase of England’s COVID-19 reopening schedule incorporated the top division of the domestic game.

The government’s roadmap details a phased reopening of sectors, with Step 3 coming into effect on Monday. This phase includes a special provision to allow up to 10,000 people or 25% of total seated capacity, whichever is lower, at large outdoor venues.

While other sports venues throughout the country opened back up to fans on Monday, yesterday was the first opportunity for Premier League clubs to do so. Indeed, barring a small window which incorporated a handful of games for certain clubs in December, yesterday’s games marked the return of fans to Premier League stadia for the first time since March 9, 2020.

Stadium capacities have been set in accordance with government guidance and following local health and safety guidelines, with topics looked at such as assessing socially distanced seating and the space available within the concourses.

United kicked things off yesterday as 10,000 fans watched the home team draw 1-1 with Fulham at Old Trafford. St Mary’s Stadium had 8,000 home fans in attendance as Southampton lost 2-0 to Leeds United.

Brighton’s 3-2 comeback victory over champions Manchester City was watched by 7,945 at Amex Stadium, while Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Leicester City saw 8,000 home fans admitted to Stamford Bridge.

Everton, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion will all play home games today to complete the first round of fixture with fans back in grounds. Earlier this month, the Premier League confirmed that the final two matchweeks of its 2020-21 season would be limited to home fans only.

The Premier League’s announcement came after it emerged that up to 500 away football fans could be allowed to attend games in the final two rounds of action. Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, wrote to the 20 clubs outlining that the government was proposing to relax the ban on away fans after May 17. The League was proposing that 5% of the permitted capacity be reserved for away fans, up to a limit of 500.

However, the League later confirmed that only home fans will be in place, subject to the government easing lockdown restrictions. Matchweek 37 was delayed to be played on May 18-19, with the final matches of the season kicking off at 4pm BST on May 23 as planned. That way, all 20 clubs will have a home game with fans in attendance.

In other reopening developments, there was some significant news lower down the English football pyramid. League One club AFC Wimbledon welcomed fans back to Plough Lane for the first time in over 30 years as the new-look stadium staged a test event game against Liverpool’s Under-23 team.

Some 2,000 fans were in attendance for an event needed as part of the club’s efforts to secure the necessary safety certificates to safely host events at Plough Lane. AFC Wimbledon in November opened the new stadium with a match against Doncaster Rovers, some 10,776 days after Wimbledon played Crystal Palace at the old Plough Lane stadium in a top-tier First Division match on May 4, 1991.

In other football news, fans will return to the Saudi Professional League (SPL) today when Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli meet at Prince Faisal bin Fahad stadium in Riyadh. The last time Saudi fans were allowed inside a football stadium was March 7, 2020, but the Ministry of Sports in March announced that limited numbers of fans could return, albeit with strict health and security measures.

This decision was ratified this month, with clubs permitted to admit fans at no more than 40% of a stadium’s capacity, with assigned, socially distanced seats.