Supporters spoke of being “over the moon”, finding life’s missing piece, and of their relief as English football began to welcome back crowds on Wednesday.
With national lockdown having ended and the country returning to regional restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, six English Football League clubs were able to open their turnstiles to a limited number of fans.
All were in tier two, meaning up to 2,000 socially-distanced, mask-wearing supporters could attend, although some were operating at a smaller capacity for this first night back.
“I’ll explain it as a football cliché – I’m over the moon,” said 61-year-old Luton fan Clive Stallwood, whose mood was enhanced further 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!”
The experience was not what supporters were used to, with deserted concourses, temperature checks on arrival, hand-sanitising stations and one-way systems in operation, but none of those factors – nor the weather – were going to dampen enthusiasm.
“I am absolutely delighted,” Wycombe fan Jeff Harvey told the PA news agency before his side’s Championship game against Stoke. “It was odd with only a handful of people walking down the road and it’s not a great night for it, but we won’t let that spoil anything.”
Wycombe were in League One the last time 79-year-old Harvey, of Flackwell Heath, was able to watch them live.
He said: “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.”
His pleasure was echoed by fellow fan John Jones, 81, of Little Kingshill.
“I am delighted to be able to come,” he said. “It is just what we need. Life hasn’t been the same without it. I just wish more could come.”
Despite the lack of numbers, Shrewsbury fan Paul Williams thought the atmosphere at Montgomery Waters Meadow for their 2-2 draw with Accrington in League One was good.
It was a first home match for new manager Steve Cotterill following the sacking of Sam Ricketts last week.
“He got a warm welcome but he may soon realise he’s got his work cut out,” said 50-year-old Williams, who watched the game in a bubble with his mother and two sons. “Sam Ricketts might have been getting some stick if he still was here.
“It’s just a relief to be be back. There’s only 2,000 but there’s still a bit of an atmosphere and I’m sure that helps the players.”
The clubs have used their own methods to determine which fans are admitted, with balloting systems and priority given to season-ticket holders. Obviously, many missed out and Nigel Browne, a Cambridge supporter of 54 years, felt that was a shame.
“It isn’t the same with only 2,000 fans,” said the 65-year-old, who was at United’s League Two clash with Mansfield, where 91 stewards were also in attendance. “I will look forward to the time when everyone can come back – but it is a step in the right direction.”
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.”