By Sharon Edwards
Forms filled on time, paper tickets in hand, Track and Trace app installed, masks and photo ID at the ready, we made our way to the London stadium on what was becoming a very cold winter evening.
As we passed by Pudding Mill Lane station, there were no signs that a football match was imminent. No fans could be heard, a few cyclists passed by, but no colours were in evidence, the sounds of a normal Saturday afternoon were absent.
The surroundings to the ground have changed somewhat since our last visit in late February with new building works around the eastern approaches with the main bridge blockaded with high metal fences and supervised by security guards
On arrival at Bridge 1, the only open thoroughfare, a small opening in the metal fences funnelled us through to a temperature check by volunteers from St John Ambulance, which had to be repeated on our necks in the cold night as the devices showed all of us initially to be dead, or at least in a state of hypothermia.
This then led to the normal security checks that were a little lighter than normal. Photo ID and App use was not checked, despite that being in the terms sent to us from the club.
The external stewarding was light touch and friendly, not at all what we had expected from the rules that were sent to us. Much was accepted on trust that we had already had our tickets validated by the web forms in the lead up to the game.
We entered through turnstiles as per normal and suddenly the atmosphere was much more like a match day.
While the concourse wasn’t crowded in the normal way, and mask wearing was adhered to, we were much more aware of the almost normal match day feeling returning.
We collected our complimentary Bovril from the kiosk and headed to find our allotted seats in the Billy Bonds Lower.
Seating was marked out by labels on the seats to be occupied, and stewards asked that we stick to these seats, even though we were in family bubbles.
This meant that in a group of three, we were separated across two rows, and by several seats initially.
We were a bit concerned that this left some very young fans separated by as many as five seats from a parent, but in the slightly genteel atmosphere of the sparsely populated arena it seemed not too much of an issue.
As kick off approached we could start to see how the 2,000 looked in the one stand, the temporary Billy Bonds Lower seating.
It wasn’t crowded, but it didn’t feel empty. Distances were certainly less than the two metres often held as the standard, but at no point did we feel unsafe, such was the confidence in the prior process.
Bubbles rang from the PA system, and the crowd raised its voice as one to welcome the returning players.
Now it was real – we were going to see a game of football in the flesh for the first time this season, and the crowd roared its support as the game got underway.
And in those opening exchanges we were not disappointed, the crowd got behind the team as we played on the front foot almost entirely in the opposition half.
The fans were quite vocal despite their low numbers, and the team rewarded us with a fairly dominant performance and a well worked goal.
Half time, hearty applause from the home fans as we go in 1-0 up.
Stewards started to move down the ranks issuing new instructions to the fans. They explained that the match controller had observed from the overhead cameras how the groups of fans were adhering to the rules and had decided to relax them slightly for the bubbles, allowing us to move closer together so that we were separated by only one seat.
Younger fans were encouraged to now simply move to sit next to parents without any separation at all, a move that was very welcome.
The fans were a bit more subdued as Rashford and Fernandez started to run at us in the second half, and we were pegged back in our own half.
The lack of a full stadium clearly disadvantaged us, as the noise alone would surely have alerted the referee and linesman to the obvious path of the ball out of play.
The tide had turned, the fans while still vocal were subdued as their second went in. We could hear Rice trying to push them on for the equaliser, but we were a spent force and the crowd could feel it, becoming more deflated as the half went on.
And so it finished, and the players came across to the fans, very few of whom had left before the final whistle. The players were warmly received despite the result,
If this was the experiment that will allow more fans back into the stadiums, then from my perspective it was a success. The operation ran smoothly, the stewarding was very good, the atmosphere was friendly and cooperative.
So, from defeat, at least a moral victory. The fans are back.