Manchester United will play a first official fixture behind closed doors on Thursday at Austrian side Linzer Athletik-Sport-Klub (LASK).
The decision has been made following guidance from the Austrian Government and Uefa relating to the spread of coronavirus. LASK will cancel the tickets that have been issued to United fans for the Europa League game and refunds will be issued, but 900 fans have paid to travel Austria's third biggest city and they are unlikely to receive money back since the British government has not issued travel restrictions for Austria.
Of those fans, many will still travel using flights, trains and hotels they have already paid for. It’s a holiday without a football match, though some fans, especially those who haven’t missed a United game for years, will still try and see the game, even if it’s watching from outside the 13,000 Linzer Stadium. Valencia’s behind-closed-doors-game against Atalanta on Tuesday didn’t stop thousands of fans turning up outside the stadium to welcome their heroes.
It’s a shame for LASK, in their first ever European football campaign. They surprised far bigger and better established forces such as PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and Rosenborg to finish top of their group, before overcoming an AZ Alkmaar side who had held United in September.
The tie against United was billed as LASK’s “game of the century” and all tickets were sold, but what is football without fans?
United’s visit could have helped secure the immediate future of a club with a record signing of just €500,000 (just over Dh2 million) and a wage structure on par with a third-tier English side.
There hasn't been a precedent for games being played behind closed doors because of a public health issue, though when Manchester City played in Moscow in 2014, the fans who had paid for their trips received news that opponents CSKA had been ordered to play their next three matches behind closed doors because of a racist incident involving CSKA fans in their game against Roma.
Most City fans didn’t travel, but around a hundred did and a dozen of them successfully got into the stadium before being identified and ejected by one of their own security staff.
Supporters of other clubs who have had games moved behind closed doors have experienced different scenarios.
In 2009, fans of Irish side St Patrick's Athletic travelled to Steaua Bucharest and watched the game behind glass in an executive box. Around 200 Schalke fans were allowed into a game at PAOK in Greece after protests, as were 200 Northern Ireland fans in Serbia in 2011 after the Irish FA protested and pushed for £60,000 compensation for those who had booked to travel. On that occasion Uefa relented, billing it as a "goodwill gesture".
United’s players train frequently behind closed doors. They also play friendlies behind closed doors, a chance for players returning from injuries or for trialists to perform in a competitive environment. United were concerned that the identity of younger trialists was finding its way onto social media when fans watched friendly games – and that would alert rival clubs.
There are a surfeit of local professional teams that can provide opponents – Blackburn Rovers visited United’s training ground earlier this season to play a game which featured Paul Pogba, and Alexis Sanchez.
Games played to empty stands help the club control who is watching, but when several competitive youth and reserve games were switched behind closed doors last decade, regular observers objected.
Yet even they could understand why United played a series of friendlies like this in September 1995, held to get Eric Cantona match practice as he came to the end of his lengthy ban for his infamous kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan. One, against Preston North End featuring a young Kevin Kilbane, couldn’t be classed as an official game and the referee came from United’s back room staff.
United, like all football clubs, have had numerous games postponed, notably after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States which saw a game in Athens postponed with the players and fans already in the city.
The club have also had matches switched away from Old Trafford. Following the Second World War, a bombed out Old Trafford wasn’t fit for use and United played at neighbours Manchester City for two years.
In 1971, hooliganism meant United were forced to play Frank O'Farrell's first two home games away from Old Trafford. Anfield and the Victoria Ground, home of Stoke City, were selected as the venues. United won both games 3-1, beating Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion respectively, but fans were allowed to attend – 27,49 at Anfield, 23,146 at Stoke – half the size of crowds United could have expected for a home match. Fencing was erected along all four sides of England's biggest club stadium, a step considered necessary to contain the increasing problem of hooliganism.
In 1977, more hooliganism meant that United had to play a European game against Saint Etienne at least 400 kilometres from Old Trafford. Home Park, Plymouth, was chosen as the venue, but, again fans were allowed to attend and they were not put off by the distance in a sell-out crowd of 31,634.
The second leg against LASK is scheduled to be played in front of a crowd, as normal, at Old Trafford a week on Thursday. LASK may cite that as unfair with United having the advantage of home support, but the circumstances of Thursday’s game are ones which neither club would have wished for.