‘It’s like old times again’ – To return to Arsenal after the pandemic with Charles Watts and his father

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For the first time in over 500 days, Charles Watts’ father was able to go to the Emirates, and our Arsenal correspondent went with him

I will never forget the moment when the reality of participating in live football during the pandemic really struck.

It was July 18, 2020, and I walked up Wembley Way just over an hour before Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City was due to start.

I reached the top of the famous ramps as I approached the stadium and looked around as I prepared to record a video. I could not see a single other person.

It was the FA Cup semi-final day at Wembley and I stood alone with no one else nearby. My heart sank.

This was not the first game I had been in after ‘Operation Restart’ kicked into gear; in fact, it was my 11. But it was the one that really made me realize how poorer football was without fans.

Maybe during the previous games I was just happy to be back doing my job again, or that the surreal nature of the situation had stopped me from really taking a moment to appreciate how hollow things were now.

But it all became quite clear that afternoon at Wembley.

This should have been a huge opportunity. Normally, Wembley Way would be filled with colors. One side red, one side blue as fans streamed up the ramps toward the stadium.

But it was just not the same; it was not football.

And it was exactly the same feeling that I took to the ground and looked around at 90,000 empty seats.

I remember when the referee whistled to get the game started. It was a sound that should have been greeted by a huge roar. This time? Nothing. Silence, except for the leaders’ shouts on the sidelines.

Charles Watts far

From that moment on, reporting on football felt like a very hollow experience to me.

There were some good matches along the way and some great goals, but it was not football. Not really. Each match felt like a slightly glorified friendly match.

Despite that, I never lost sight of how lucky I was that I could still go to the fights every week.

I know I was in a privileged position to travel up and down the country to watch games and see the club I not only report on but also support.

Millions of Arsenal fans around the world would have given anything to change positions with me on a match day, including my father – who has been a season ticket holder since 1990 and has sat in the same spot at the Emirates Stadium since moving from Highbury in 2006.

For years I had gotten used to taking a seat in the press box before a game and waiting for the same text message. It usually arrives around noon. 14.30 and always reads ‘Where are you?’

I would send one back and then look over to the opposite side of the stadium where I would see my dad look down at his phone and then look across to find me, put my arm up and start waving.

It was the same routine, every game, for years.

I can not tell you how much I missed it during the pandemic.