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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.
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.
One of the hardest things about achieving my ambition to become an Arsenal reporter was having to give up sitting on my actual seat in the stadium next to my dad every other week.
Going to Arsenal as a fan had been something I had been doing on an almost weekly basis since 1991. Watching matches from the press box took a little adjustment and I still have a hard time with it now that people like Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea are rolling in. north London.
But still being able to see my dad at play made that transformation a little easier, and it felt completely wrong to look at his empty seat during the pandemic.
I knew how much he missed it, so sometimes I would walk around to the entrance to lane J and take a picture just to send him, or I would send him a photo of the area where he usually sat while I passed by way to the press box.
It was just small things, but I knew they made him feel just a little closer to his beloved Arsenal on a match day.
Dad is 76 now. He grew up in Holloway just a stone’s throw away from where the Emirates now stands. Arsenal are in his blood and the fact that he could not walk every week left a big hole in his life.
It was a gap he obviously tried to fill by doing other things and he would still watch every game from home, but he freely admits it just wasn’t the same. A victory did not feel so good and a defeat never felt so painful.
The relationship was still there, but there was an interruption that only absence can bring.
And that’s why last Sunday’s match against Chelsea was so special.
Forget the result, and forget the negativity that currently surrounds Arsenal. That match against Chelsea was about more than that, just as it was for fans around the country who took their way back to support their clubs during the first season of the new season after 18 months away.
I knew exactly what going back to his seat for the first time since that win against West Ham 533 days earlier meant for my father, and therefore I had to go to the match with him.
It was the first time I had been sitting in my actual seat since 2018, and walking through the streets on my way to the game was very special. It was like old times again.
I moaned over Arsenal while my father was positive. He pointed to houses that his friends used to live in while I asked him for money to buy a burger from one of the stalls outside the subway station. It was as if we had never been away.
For the first time in a long time, it usually felt like going to football again, and even a demoralizing defeat could not remove what a special feeling it was.
I’m back in the press box when Norwich take on Arsenal on 9/11 and my niece is sitting in my seat next to Dad’s.
Once again, I look forward to receiving that sms at. 14.30 and watch him frantically wave and try to get my attention. I can not wait.
Welcome back, Dad.