The wait is finally over.
After almost nine months, the Premier League will welcome back supporters this weekend.
Much has changed since 32,125 fans watched Leicester beat Aston Villa 4-0 back on March 9. The world, never mind football, is a different place.
But every journey starts with a small step, and on Saturday evening 2,000 fans will attend West Ham’s clash with Manchester United at the London Stadium.
A few hours later, supporters will be inside Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea take on Leeds, while on Sunday both Tottenham, who host Arsenal, and Liverpool, who welcome Wolves to Anfield, will open their doors too.
For Liverpool, this is a big deal. “A nice sign,” says Jurgen Klopp. “And I hope that it is just the first step.”
The Reds, remember, were one of the last English clubs to play in front of a full house, with their Champions League last-16 second-leg clash with Atletico Madrid in March attracting more than 52,000 fans – including, controversially, around 3,000 who made the trip from Spain, at what we now know was the height of the coronavirus crisis.
They have become Premier League champions in the intervening period, their 30-year wait for a league title ending in surreal fashion, behind closed doors and after a three-month suspension of the campaign.
On Sunday, finally, their loyal followers – well, some of them – will get the chance to pay tribute in person.
It’ll be a different experience, of course. Anfield is famed for its atmosphere, but it will be strange to hear just 2,000 supporters rattling around a stadium which holds more than 54,000 when full.
Only the Kop and the Main Stand will be open, with the 1,500 lucky enough to have picked up a ticket in this week’s ballot split between the two.
There will be no paper tickets, with Liverpool using a new online platform, Seat Geek, for the first time for the Wolves game. According to club sources, the feedback has been positive.
All supporters must complete a health declaration, which will be sent 24 hours before the game along with their e-ticket, and all will be given a parking space, free of charge, in nearby Stanley Park.
Public transport is available, with a limited matchday service in operation. Supporters will be allocated one of three different arrival times, beginning 90 minutes before kick-off, to limit queues.
Only those from the Liverpool City Region were given the chance to apply for tickets in the ballot, to prevent the issue of fans travelling internationally, or from areas which are subject to Tier 3 lockdown restrictions.
The remainder of the 2,000 tickets were allocated to corporate guests, who will be housed in the Main Stand. All will be encouraged (though not instructed) to take a Covid-19 test prior to attending.
The Kop Bar, underneath the famous stand, will continue to be one of the city’s mass testing centres – Liverpool has achieved great success in driving down its rate of infection as part of the government’s pilot scheme over the past month – and will be open on Sunday, although the centre will close four hours before kick-off.
As an extra measure, non-invasive temperature checks will be carried out on all attendees prior to entering the stadium. Around 700 matchday staff will be working, compared to more than 2,000 on a ‘normal’ matchday. All have received appropriate training in relation to Covid-19 and its risks.
The official club shop, situated close to the Kop, will be open, though it will close an hour and 15 minutes before kick-off. Inside the ground, food and non-alcoholic drinks can be purchased using the ‘Seat Serve’ app.
The message from the club is one of public health, of responsibility. They have liaised closely with Liverpool City Council, whose Ground Safety Advisory Group approved the return of supporters on Wednesday, and with the Department of Public Health.
Supporters will be asked, inside and outside the stadium, to adhere to a code of conduct, which includes a warning that “Covid-19 spreads more easily when people stand, sing and shout”.
Fans are urged to stay in their seats as much as possible, to avoid face-to-face contact and to avoid using toilet facilities at ‘peak’ times – in other words, at half-time and full-time – if possible.
Of course, it will be different. Unusual, even. But it’s a start, the first step on the long road back to normality. And for some, such as Diogo Jota, it will be a first taste of the famous Reds support.
“Football without fans is strange,” the Portuguese star said this week. “Obviously when you play for a club like Liverpool that has one of the best atmospheres in the world, it just feels like something is missing.
“We have a lot of these conversations with the staff and even with the players [about] the things I am missing.
“Feeling the Anfield effect is the thing I’m looking forward to most.”
Amen to that, Diogo. Football without fans is nothing, as the saying goes.
And judging by the experiences of this week, in the EFL and at Arsenal, who welcomed fans back for their Europa League win over Rapid Vienna on Thursday, things are much, much better with people, even just a couple of thousand, there to watch it.
It won’t change everything overnight, but this is one of the most significant moments in Premier League history.
Klopp calls football “the most important of the least important things in life”. Well, it will feel that little bit more important this weekend.
Welcome back, supporters. It’s been too long.