For the first time in more than 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 that the reality of live football during the pandemic was truly at home.
It was July 18, 2020 and I walked just over an hour on Wembley Way before Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City.
I reach the top of the famous driveways as I approach the stadium and look around as I prepare to record a video. I could not see another person.
It was the semi-finals of the FA Cup at Wembley, and I stood on my own without anyone else being there. My heart sank.
This was not the first game I attended after ‘Operation Restart’ got into gear; actually it was my 11th. But it was the one that really made me realize how weaker football was without fans.
Maybe during the previous games I was just happy that I could do my job again, or that the surrealistic nature of the situation really took me a while to realize how hollow things are now.
But it became very clear that afternoon at Wembley.
It must have been a great opportunity. Usually, Wembley Way will be overloaded with color. One side red, one side blue as fans stream against the driveways to the stadium.
But it just wasn’t the same; it was not football.
And it was exactly the same feeling when I got into the ground and looked at 90,000 empty seats.
I remember when the referee blew his whistle to get the match going. It was a sound that had to be greeted by a giant roar. This time? Nothing. Silence, apart from the screams of the drivers on the sidelines.
Since then, reporting on football has felt like a very hollow experience to me.
There were some good games and good goals, but it was not football. Not really. Every match feels like a slightly glorified friendship.
Nevertheless, I never lost sight of how lucky I was to still be able to go to the games every week.
I know I was in a privileged position to go up and down the country and watch the matches that I not only report on, but also support.
Millions of Arsenal fans around the world would have given anything to swap positions with me on a game day, including my dad – who has been a season ticket holder since 1990 and has been sitting in the same seat at the Emirates Stadium since moving out of Highbury in 2006 has. .
For years I was used to sitting in the press box before the game and waiting for the same sms. It usually arrives around 2.30pm and always reads ‘Where are you?’
I send one back and then look at the opposite side of the stadium, where I can look at my dad’s phone, then I look to find me, put his arm in the air and start waving.
It was the same routine for years, every game.
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 to stop sitting on my actual seat in the stadium next to my dad every two weeks.
As a fan to Arsenal was something I have been doing on a weekly basis since 1991. It was a bit of an adjustment to games from the press box and I still find it difficult when people like Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea come in. North London.
But my dad could still see at games, made the transformation a little easier, and it was completely wrong to look at his empty seat.
I knew how much he missed it, so I sometimes walked around to the entrance of turnstile gate J and took a photo just to send it to him, or I sent him a photo of the area where he would normally sit while I walked past on my way to the press box.
It was just small things, but I knew they made him feel a little closer to his beloved Arsenal on a match day.
Dad is now 76. He was raised in Holloway, just a short distance from where the Emirates now stands. Arsenal are in his blood and the fact that he could not go every week has left a big hole in his life.
It was a hole he naturally wanted to fill by doing other things, and he would still watch every game from home, but he freely admits it was not the same. A victory did not feel so good and a defeat has never been so painful.
The relationship was still there, but there was a breakup that could only lead to absence.
And that’s why last Sunday’s game against Chelsea was so special.
Forget the result and forget the negativity that currently surrounds Arsenal. The match against Chelsea was more than that, just like for fans across the country who were away after 18 months to support their clubs.
I knew exactly what the return to his seat meant to my father for the first time since the win against West Ham 533 days earlier, so I had to go to the game with him.
It was the first time I sat on my real 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 about Arsenal while my dad was positive. He showed houses in which his friends lived, while I asked him for money to buy a burger at one of the stalls outside the metro station. It was as if we had never been away.
For the first time in a long time, football feels normal again and even a demoralizing defeat can not take away a special feeling.
I’m back in the press box when Norwich go to Arsenal on September 11 and my cousin sits next to me next to me.
Once again I look forward to receiving the sms at 14:30 and see him frantically waving to get my attention. I can not wait.
Welcome back, Dad.