Billy Grant has waited more than 40 years for this.
Tonight, Brentford – the team he loves so much he has made them the subject of over 700 episodes of a weekly podcast – will play their first game in English football’s top flight since 1947.
Grant, nicknamed “Billy The Bee” after the west London club, will join more than 17,000 other fans at the Brentford Community Stadium to see them take on Arsenal in the opening fixture of this year’s Premier League.
“It’s a bit surreal,” he said. “The 40-odd years I’ve seen them play they’ve always been in the lower leagues.
“If you asked me five or six years ago, ‘would you see Brentford in the Premier League?’ I would have said there’s no chance.”
After more than a year of disruption caused by the pandemic, this weekend’s opening round of games in the world’s most lucrative league will be the first to see grounds at full capacity since March 2020.
At stadiums larger than 20,000 seats, safety precautions will still be in place, including random spot-checks for people’s COVID-19 status, with fans having to prove they are fully vaccinated or have had a negative lateral flow test in the last 48 hours.
The Premier League has also said people going to games must comply with a “supporter code of conduct”, which includes wearing masks indoors, avoiding close contact with people they do not know and following one-way signage around stadiums.
Many fans have missed the entire matchday experience, including meeting up for pre-match pints.
“We’ve got a saying: ‘Never let the football ruin a day out at the football,'” said Darren Berry, an Arsenal fan who will be at the game tonight.
“That’s what it’s all about, meeting up with like-minded people. The game’s the game, you can’t do anything about that, but you can still have a good day out.”
With tonight’s game kicking off just 31 days after the end of Euro 2020, Richard Masters, the CEO of the Premier League, is expecting the competition to see a surge in popularity after England reached the final of the tournament.
“The Premier League always gets a boost from major competition, so I think there’ll be more interest than normal because of Gareth Southgate’s fantastic England team performance during the summer,” he said.
Euro 2020 also reignited the debate about racism in football following the abuse suffered by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, the three players who missed their spot kicks in a penalty shootout against Italy.
Masters says the league will be taking a zero-tolerance approach to racism, with anyone caught using discriminatory language at the grounds or online banned from all Premier League stadiums.
Just like they did last season, all 20 clubs will continue to take the knee, but there will be two noticeable exceptions – Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha and Brentford’s Ivan Toney have decided not to take part in the gesture.
Speaking earlier this week to Sky Sports News, Toney said he felt that taking the knee was no longer having an impact.
“Everyone will have their own views. They have come to the conclusion they will take the knee,” he said.
“Listen, everyone can find the negatives from it, everyone can find the positives from it. All that matters at the end of the day is what I think of it.
“That is all that matters to me, my family and the club. They are supporting me on my decision, they back me all the way.”