Arsenal will be the first Premier League club to welcome fans in for a competitive fixture since March after confirming 2,000 spectators will be allowed in for their Europa League match against Rapid Vienna next Thursday.
The Gunners learned on Thursday that the Emirates Stadium is in tier two of the Government’s new regionalised approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, and will now be able to welcome fans in for the clash with the Austrian side.
A club statement read: “It’s been almost nine long months since we had fans in attendance at Emirates Stadium and our matches have simply not been the same without you.
“While we appreciate that reduced capacity matches will be far from being ‘back to normal’, we can’t wait to welcome our fans back home for what will be a historic moment for the club.”
West Ham’s match against Manchester United on December 5 is set to be the first Premier League game with fans in attendance.
The league released its confirmed televised schedule for the rest of the year on Thursday afternoon, and the Hammers, whose London Stadium is in tier two, kick off against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at 5.30pm on that date.
West Ham say they are continuing to prepare for the return of spectators, but have yet to confirm arrangements for the Red Devils encounter.
A statement on the club website, detailing fixture changes in December, read: “West Ham United and the Premier League noted the Government’s announcement that, subject to tiered Covid-19 guidelines, a small number of supporters may be able to attend the aforementioned matches.
“West Ham United want the safe return of our supporters to London Stadium as soon as possible and the club continues to plan and prepare in great detail, working with supporters, stadium partners and the Premier League, while following the guidance issued by the Government and the Sports Ground Safety Authority.
“The club will continue to keep supporters up to date as the situation develops.”
All the games which precede it – Aston Villa v Newcastle on December 4, Burnley v Everton at 12.30pm and Manchester City v Fulham on December 5 – are being played in tier three areas.
Brighton, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are the other teams in tier two areas hosting games that weekend.
Brighton boss Graham Potter, whose side host Southampton on December 7, hailed the return of fans but warned it would not necessarily work in the favour of the home clubs in question.
“Sometimes the home crowd is with you, because you are playing well, and sometimes the home crowd can be a little bit nervous or frustrated and therefore it can work against you,” said Potter.
“But I think certainly if you have got that environment, where the home supporters are really behind the players, there’s a real belief, a real connection, then I think it can be really powerful at a football club.”
But Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa, whose side are based in a tier three area where fans remain banned from venues, believes it is unfair to allow fans to return on a partial basis.
“It shouldn’t be about the category, or the consequences of being in a category, it should be about trying to maintain the competition as equal as possible with things that are controllable,” Bielsa said.
“The presence of fans has an effect on the results.
“What the organisation says is people who are from places where there’s a higher risk of infection, it means they will be penalised.”
Bielsa’s concerns were echoed by Bolton boss Ian Evatt, whose League Two club will also be unable to allow fans back for the time being.
Evatt called the regional tier system “madness” and “crazy” and told the Bolton News: “I think there is an advantage there – certainly having supporters that are trying to back your team and will them on, it can only help (them).”
Clubs in the EFL have been desperate to get fans back into stadiums, because they rely much more heavily on matchday revenue than Premier League sides backed by a lucrative television deal.
League Two side Cambridge could be among the first to reopen their doors after confirming they are working on plans to welcome supporters in for the game against Mansfield on December 2.
League One club Northampton said it was aiming to allow 1,000 season ticket holders into their ground for the December 5 visit of Doncaster as a pilot event.
The EFL said a total of 34 of its clubs were in tier two, potentially impacting on six matches next week.
“The EFL is working with those clubs to support discussions with local safety advisory groups to ensure EFL stadiums can safely welcome back fans from Wednesday, December 2 onwards,” a league statement read.
The Rugby Football Union has announced it will be allowing 2,000 spectators into Twickenham for England’s final Autumn Nations Cup match on December 6.
Worcester are the first Gallagher Premiership team to welcome fans after the November lockdown, when Bath visit Sixways on December 5. The Warriors have confirmed a crowd of 2,000 will be able to attend the match.
The PA news agency understands World Snooker Tour officials are exploring the possibility of allowing some fans to watch next week’s final stages of the UK Championship in Milton Keynes.
Racegoers could return to courses as early as Wednesday, with Ludlow, Lingfield, Haydock and Kempton all in tier two areas.