LONDON — It was the grandeur of the Premier League with the intimacy of local pub games.
And it was glorious to have fans back in stadiums. Tears welled up as I heard West Ham fans on the radio singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ as I drove towards Stamford Bridge.
[ MORE: 10 things learned from fans’ return ]
At Chelsea v Leeds, a huge smile arrived as Jorginho and Cesar Azpilicueta joined in the chants of the home fans. Tottenham fans directing the every move of their player’s was both entertaining and summed up just how much fans had missed being at games.
Fans and players could hear absolutely everything, good and bad, as it was like supporters had been invited to a special friendly game behind-closed-doors. Jurgen Klopp was emotional at seeing fans return to Anfield too, and he could not stop smiling.
It was heart-warming, uplifting and chastening all at the same time. The vast number of empty seats told you something is obviously seriously wrong in the world but the chants and cheers of fans filled that void and for 90 minutes you could focus on hearing the reactions and the life from other individuals. As a journalist, those cues were helpful to know when to look up from my laptop as a big moment was occurring.
The overriding emotion was a sense of hope that one day, hopefully soon, fans can return in larger numbers safely. March 9 was the last day a Premier League game had fans in attendance. 271 days later, on December 5, fans returned.
The soul of the league has returned, albeit in small numbers, to the huge relief of everyone connected with the national obsession in England. Seeing videos of fans back in stands at lower-league grounds across England during the week was as much of a relief as it was a celebration.
Having attended games with no fans throughout the pandemic so far, it felt like the heart had been brutally ripped out of clubs. Grand stadia seemed meaningless without the atmosphere fans generate. Star players more minuscule without adoring supporters. Acts of splendour less spectacular without anyone there to watch it. Until now.
✅🏟👋 Welcome to Stamford Bridge! 2,000 fans are here to watch Chelsea for the 1st time in 9 months.
I’ll have live analysis, info on the atmosphere with fans & updates from #CFC v #LUFC which kicks off on @NBCSN at 3pm ET ➡️ https://t.co/KKS4XOLK0G#CHELEE should be brilliant pic.twitter.com/5q4QP9ni6p
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 5, 2020
2,000 fans were allowed to attend five Premier League games in Matchweek 11, as the UK government relaxed regulations on fans attending events in outdoor stadiums. 2,000 fans in stadiums which can hold over 60,000 isn’t a lot, but it’s a start.
As I soaked it all in on Fulham Road outside Stamford Bridge, a group of Chelsea fans had a pint outside their usual pub. They greeted one another warmly, with elbow bumps, then sadly they recounted friends and family taken by COVID-19. The reminder of being incredibly lucky to even be attending games right now was always there.
What was the biggest takeaway?
I went to Chelsea v Leeds and Tottenham v Arsenal and the atmospheres were a little different. At Chelsea, the fans seemed louder and were closer to the action simply due to the fact that the stadium is smaller (20,000 seats smaller) than Tottenham.
Either way, everyone at those games found themselves pleasantly surprised at just how much noise 2,000 fans can make. The boos and banter directed at the officials and opposition players was amusing, and even though Leeds’ players were getting heckled by the Chelsea fans you got the sense they enjoyed having fans back.
Spurs fans flipped the bird at Arsenal players after they went 2-0 up and in that moment of ecstasy for Tottenham fans who saw their team score against their biggest rivals, everything else seemed to go away.
My biggest takeaway: there is definitely a home advantage.
One of the other big takeaways was the intensity of the game. Players seemed to run faster, tackle harder and coaches shouter louder. Now, I’m not saying the games were bad without fans. They were mostly very good. But the intensity levels were definitely closer to normal.
🔵👏⚪️ My half time thoughts from here at Stamford Bridge.
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 5, 2020
If you are lucky enough to be at one of these games as a fan in the coming weeks and months, it is like you’re living your dream. You can hear players and managers. They can hear you. It is a proper no frills environment, and fans sat near me directed their tactical acumen at players who could clearly hear them. And they responded.
A Tottenham fan sat a few rows behind me told Gareth Bale to get his warm ups off as he was coming on soon. He previously shouted that he loved Bale and then Bale gave him a smile and a wave. There was a close connection between players and fans, perhaps closer than before.
Perhaps both parties took that relationship for granted before COVID-19 shut down the league. The longest lockout in England’s soccer history will have that kind of impact.
Only 10 of the current 20 Premier League teams are allowed to host 2,000 fans, with the other 10 clubs located in high-risk areas so fans aren’t allowed to return. For now.
The Premier League hopes to accelerate the number of fans coming back to stadiums if they can prove that small numbers of fans returning isn’t dangerous and worked well.
In the coming weeks there is a chance that the number will be bumped up to 4,000 fans at some PL stadiums, depending on the level of coronavirus cases in their local region and whether that area is moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1 restrictions by the UK government.
Baby steps. That was the phrase which kept being said. The return of fans in small numbers can clearly work safely, but when to ramp it up is the tricky part.
Safety protocols in place worked well
From what I saw at Stamford Bridge and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Premier League clubs will be able to bring in more fans fairly soon, as long as COVID-19 cases stay low in England.
Stewards took their instructions very seriously, as they should, as fans at Chelsea were told to not stand persistently as it would impact all fans returning for future games. Fans are told to sit down during the game under the PL’s COVID-19 protocol for fans to return, but that is always the case in all-seater stadiums in the Premier League as it is not safe to stand due to the design of the seats.
At both clubs there were signs plastered everywhere with hand sanitizer stations galore and temperature checks for every single fan. Messages appeared on the big screens during the game to remind fans to wear masks, to keep their distance from others when inside or outside and many other rules which we know help stop the spread of COVID-19.
All in all, the Premier League clubs are going above and beyond what is expected, and what they are doing in the lower leagues, to try and increase the number of fans allowed in ASAP.
As long as COVID-19 cases stay low in England, that will be soon.
Fans in attendance for the first time since March, and they loved it!
— Joe Prince-Wright (@JPW_NBCSports) December 6, 2020