On Boxing Day last year, a total of 752,879 people attended a football match in England’s top four divisions. At 44 stadiums up and down the land, crowds averaged more than 17,000.
But this year, things were different. Across those same four divisions, eight Boxing Day fixtures were postponed because of coronavirus. Of the remaining 34 matches, 31 had to be played behind closed doors. For most, an annual tradition was lost - a tradition that has been passed from generation to generation to generation.
At three stadiums, though, the tradition continued. Three stadiums lucky enough to be in tier two, albeit in League Two: Exeter’s St James Park, Tranmere’s Prenton Park, and Carlisle United’s Brunton Park, where the hosts took on Bolton Wanderers.
An hour before kick-off in Cumbria, just the mere sight of supporters milling about outside the stadium was a welcome one, a rare novelty in an era of ghost grounds and fake crowd noise. Fans popped into the club shop for some late Christmas bargains, and a makeshift hot dog tent began to do its first trade of the afternoon.
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By 2019 standards, things were still pretty quiet. More than 6,000 were at Brunton Park when Carlisle hosted Bradford on Boxing Day a year ago - this time they were restricted to 2,000, under tier two regulations. Not only that, but Storm Bella had descended, 50mph winds sending temporary fencing tumbling outside the East Stand.
With coronavirus cases low in a relatively isolated city near the Scottish border, Carlisle have been allowed to welcome fans back since lockdown ended on December 2. As supporters cheered them on for the first time this season, they bagged a home win over Salford on December 3, and have since defeated Stevenage and Mansfield at Brunton Park, to solidify their position in League Two’s automatic promotion spots.
Home advantage has been strengthened, particularly with visiting supporters still banned under EFL regulations. The away turnstiles lay unused for this match against Bolton, who would probably have been expected to bring upwards of 1,000 in normal circumstances.
Inside the stadium, hundreds of cardboard cutouts still sat in the first few rows of the East Stand, constantly swaying backwards and forwards in the gale-force winds. Initially placed there when matches were being played behind closed doors, they’re a varied bunch - cutouts of loyal fans, a cutout of a cat, a cutout of Frank Sidebottom, even a cutout of Chewbacca. Who knew Carlisle had such loyal wookiee support?
As kick-off approached against Bolton, Brunton Park - capacity 18,000 - was only a ninth full. It felt like much more, though: social distancing had done much to spread out the crowd, with fans dotted around three sides of the ground - the smart all-seater East Stand, the shed-like Warwick Road End terrace, and the old Main Stand, which sits behind an open terrace that stretches the length of the field. This almost felt like a normal football match, a pre-Covid experience that somehow had begun to feel mythical during the intervening nine months.
When the clock ticked past 3pm, no longer was a match played out in silence, punctuated only by the shouts of the players. There was a hubbub, a low din that can only come from the constant conversation of a crowd. It was almost beautiful.
Within five minutes, that hubbub had been replaced by a roar, as Aaron Hayden headed Carlisle in front. Two minutes later, a second roar, mixed with audible disbelief. Against former Premier League opposition, Carlisle already led 2-0, through Lewis Alessandra. “United, United!” chanted the buoyant home support through face masks. You’d never have known there were only 2,000 people inside the stadium.
Gethin Jones must have been wishing the game was behind closed doors. A Carlisle player last season, the Bolton wing back was bearing the brunt of the home crowd’s mirth, particularly when a pass evaded him and went out for a throw-in, to huge cheers. “You should have stayed at a big club!” a Carlisle fan chanted, on his own, looking around slightly disappointed that no-one else was joining in.
With the wind causing havoc on the pitch - at least two Bolton clearances comically hurtled back towards their own goal after catching the breeze - the rain was starting to lash the fans on the open terrace. It wasn’t dampening spirits though, with their team in the ascendancy. Another supporter had created his own makeshift drum by simply bashing the back of the East Stand, with such force that one wondered whether there’d be a hole in the stand by the end of the game.
The crowd was influencing behaviour on the field, too - if some behind-closed-doors matches occasionally feel like glorified friendlies, this felt like anything but. There was an edge to the match - most visible when Bolton were denied a penalty, and responded furiously. Even manager Ian Evatt got involved, prompting derision from the crowd - and a yellow card from the referee.
“Barrow reject, Barrow reject, hello, hello!” fans chanted at the former boss of their Cumbrian rivals, before moving on to “Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning…”
Bolton sat an underwhelming 15th in League Two, and by the 36th minute, they were 3-0 down, as Omari Patrick struck. Despite the miserable weather, Carlisle fans were having the time of their lives. Every Bolton mistake was greeted with a cheer.
A minute before half time, there was yet another cheer as a Bolton cross was blocked - only for it to loop into the path of George Thomason, who headed home. With no Bolton fans in the stadium, the goal was greeted with a disappointed silence.
For much of the second half though, Carlisle looked comfortable at 3-1, seemingly on course to leapfrog League Two leaders Newport. “We are top of the league, say we are top of the league!” a young fan shouted, having spent much of the game trying to emulate his dad by bellowing a wide variety of nonsense at regular intervals. For nine whole months, kids up and down the country have been denied an appropriate outlet for such pointless shouting.
Around the rest of the ground though, fans were gradually getting wetter and colder, as the game looked to be petering out. Then, the sting in the tail: Nathan Delfouneso halved the deficit in the 86th minute, before Peter Kioso completed Bolton’s entirely unexpected comeback from 3-0 down just two minutes later. Boos rang round as the goalscorer celebrated by running pointedly in front of the home terrace.
Another minute or two later, there was a collective intake of breath from the watching 2,000 as Thomason almost put Bolton 4-3 up, striking the foot of the post. Kioso was soon sent off for a second bookable offence, before the final piece of drama - Carlisle looked set to reclaim the lead, only for Jon Mellish to somehow hit the post from close range. Cue cries of anguish from the home support.
At full time, while Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas played forlornly over the PA system, fans trudged disconsolately out of the stadium, frozen and soaked, after a two-hour buffeting by Storm Bella. They’d been among the rare few to actually attend a Boxing Day fixture - and a six-goal thriller at that - but the frittering away of a three-goal lead and top spot in League Two had just ruined their evening.
Such is the life of a football fan. Given the opportunity, they’ll be back to do it all again as soon as possible. In just one crazy afternoon, Carlisle supporters sampled every wondrous commodity that the matchday experience has to offer: the camaraderie, the hope, the joy, the schadenfreude, the anxiety, and most predictably of all, the despair. Oh, how we’ve all missed it. Even the despair.
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