English football moved a step closer to a return to normality as the game began to welcome back crowds on Wednesday night.
Only six clubs in the English Football League were in a position to admit fans, and none could allow in more than 2,000, but the joy and relief within the game was obvious.
Supporters spoke of being “over the moon” and finding life’s missing piece as they finally had the chance to watch their teams live again for the first time in nine months due to the pandemic.
Many aspects of the experience were not familiar. Fans had to wear masks and maintain social distancing, there were temperature checks and hand-sanitising stations on arrival and one-way systems in operation. Some clubs also had to operate under the 2,000-capacity limit but enthusiasm among those with tickets was generally high.
“I’ll explain it as a football cliché – I’m over the moon,” said 61-year-old Luton fan Clive Stallwood, whose mood was only enhanced by his side’s stunning 3-1 win over Sky Bet Championship leaders Norwich at Kenilworth Road.
“It is fantastic. It has been too long. I have been coming to football for 50 years and every other Saturday it has been like missing a tooth.
“I did miss going to the pub before the game but you can’t have it all!”
Wycombe were in League One the last time long-standing fan Jeff Harvey, of Flackwell Heath, was able to watch them live.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said Harvey, 79, before his side’s Championship game against Stoke. “It’s not a great night for it, but we won’t let that spoil anything.
“It’s the first time since March. The first thing I noticed was the new floodlights. They’re much better! They needed them after getting into the Championship.”
Despite the lack of numbers, Shrewsbury fan Paul Williams thought the atmosphere at Montgomery Waters Meadow for the 2-2 draw with Accrington in League One was good.
“It’s just a relief to be be back,” said the 50-year-old Williams, who watched the game in a bubble with his mother and two sons. “There’s only 2,000 but there’s still a bit of an atmosphere and I’m sure that helps the players.”
It was a first home match for new manager Steve Cotterill following the sacking of Sam Ricketts last week.
Williams said: “He got a warm welcome but he may soon realise he’s got his work cut out. Sam Ricketts might have been getting some stick if he still was here.”
The first fans to see a goal were at Brunton Park, where Carlisle’s League Two encounter with Salford kicked off at 7pm, 45 minutes before the other matches.
Lewis Alessandra was the man on target, notably raising the decibel levels among the 2,000-strong crowd with a sweet strike after 33 minutes.
The fans were spread around the 16,000-capacity ground, both standing and seated, but the atmosphere did not appear to suffer too badly for that.
Striker Omari Patrick was certainly impressed.
He tweeted: “Blues!!!! The sound – it’s great to have you all back!”
Not everyone, however, was quite so thrilled. Charlton manager Lee Bowyer felt his side’s followers were not vocal enough at The Valley as they were beaten 1-0 by MK Dons in League One.
“I’d have liked it to have been a bit more positive from the fans,” he said. “They’ve been away for so long I would have liked them to pick the lads up when it’s not going so well.
“I’m glad they are back in. I wish they were a little more vocal. It was very, very quiet apart from some negative shouting.”
Charlton fan Paul Field said: “It was a disappointing result but it is good to be back. It was a good experience. It terms of organisation the club couldn’t have done any more.
“I’ve seen some of the post-match comments from the manager. That’s disappointing. I think there needs to be a bit of understanding that it’s not the same – 2,000 spread out in a 27,000-seat stadium is not the same as 20,000 in there.”
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