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Back to the agony and the ecstasy! Fans return to football stadiums

Written by on 02/12/2020

Fans are crowding Linda’s burger van for the first time in more than nine months.

Linda herself is busy flipping patties on the grill but her assistant, Annie, sums up what it means to have supporters return to stadiums.

“It’s just awesome,” she says. “It’s great to see everyone smiling again, it feels like a bit of normality has come back.”

Linda’s van is just outside the entrance to Adams Park, the home of Wycombe Wanderers. They’ve not had supporters here since 22 February and in the intervening period have experienced arguably the greatest successes in the club’s history, promoted to the EFL Championship – the second tier of English football – for the first time in 133 years.

Annie says it feels like a bit of 'normality' having fans back
Image: Annie says it feels like a bit of ‘normality’ having fans back

They won the playoff at an almost empty Wembley with none of their own fans present. “That was the best day and the worst day, very bittersweet,” says Mark Bowring, a lifelong Wycombe supporter.

“I’m so excited to be back here again watching them in the Championship, it feels fantastic to see familiar faces again but I’m feeling really sorry for the fans who aren’t here.”

Another fan joins in. “It’s not just football, it’s a community,” she says.

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Under the newest government regulations, outdoor stadiums in Tier 1 areas are permitted to have 4,000 supporters or 50% stadium capacity, whichever is the smaller number. In Tier 2, like Wycombe, 2,000 fans are allowed, or 50% capacity.

A breakdown in communication between central government and the local council meant Wycombe had tailored their planning towards a pilot event, so only 1,000 supporters were permitted inside to see their struggling team take on Stoke on Wednesday evening.

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Queuing outside, they are allowed in one-by-one, some stopping so their temperature can be tested, grasping their ticket like it was golden.

This isn’t the pre-pandemic fan experience. Fans are socially distanced with at least three seats between each party, mask wearing is mandatory and no food or drink is on sale in the stadium.

American owner Pete Couhig is delighted to have fans back, even if it’s costing him. “Right now these matches are actually costing us a little bit of extra money to do, to have 1,000 fans in,” he says.

“Match day ticket sales are huge in the Championship. We fully expected to sell out most if not all of our matches this year.

“Instead we’re not covering our costs with ticket sales or selling food and drink.”

Travel to and from the ground remains the government's chief concern
Image: Travel to and from the ground remains the government’s chief concern

There has been a massive drive across football to get fans back. Many thought up to one third of supporters would be allowed to return in October following a string of pilot events, but the second wave hit rendering those plans impossible.

Even now there is frustration that more supporters are not allowed in given the fact these are outdoor events. But authorities insist it is the travel to and from the stadium which remains the concern.

The hope is that with vaccines on the way, by the end of the season stadiums like Adams Park will be full.

“A vaccine’s been authorised for the public and that’s going to be a big step forward for not just the football industry, the whole hospitality industry,” says stadium manager Gordon Reilly. “It might mean we can get a full house in here before the end of the season, that’s for sure.”

For now, these fans are grateful just to be here to applaud, even if they are clapping a 0-1 defeat at the end of the night.

 Sky News

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