Wednesday night at Abbey StadiumBen Phillips

It’s been about ten months (266 days, but who’s counting?) since turnstiles last opened and football fans in the UK were allowed into stadiums to support their club. Football has huge importance in many people’s lives and their communities; it provides a sense of belonging and camaraderie, having a huge social impact on fans’ lives and livelihood. The pandemic has affected fans and clubs alike; smaller clubs have struggled financially during the pandemic without fan attendance funding match day revenue, with a lot of football clubs having to place staff on furlough during both lockdown periods.

In a recent poll commissioned by BBC Sport, correspondents asked if football fans should be allowed to return to watch live football before a vaccine. 52% said that fans should be allowed back & 42% said no, they should not. A petition, which was signed by over 199,000 people, saw MPs debate as to whether or not supporters should be allowed to return to venues, and what the timeframe could be. With national lockdown in England ending and the tier system being reintroduced, stadiums in Tier 1 & 2 locales are allowed to open again, with COVID measures in place.

Here in the heart of Cambridge, Cambridge United has led the way for football clubs around the country; back in September the League 2 club was chosen by the EFL & FA to run a pilot scheme for football clubs and the government to see how fans could attend games with COVID measures in place. One thousand fans attended the fixture and the scheme was hailed a success by everyone, including the national media. Sadly, the second lockdown then happened before football clubs could start returning to some form of normality.

Cambridge United CEO Ian Mather announced that Wednesday 2nd December would see Cambridge United lead the way once more with 2,000 fans being allowed to attend their league fixture against Mansfield Town. He explained: “It costs a football club more money to stage a game with fans than without; we’ve made a decision there is no question of a doubt we want fans back and an atmosphere here at the Abbey Stadium – it’s a good stepping stone for the club”. Fans came out of hibernation, excitedly returning to support their local team, but with strict measures in place. Fans were only allowed to stand or sit in their own bubbles, and were asked to wear a face mask at all times. Fans were also told not to touch the ball if it comes near them and not to approach players for autographs or pictures.

Despite the new COVID measures in place, fans were still pleased to watch the match. One U’s fan, Jack Beeton, said: “I am buzzing to be back watching live football & am very excited, nine months has been a long time not to watch football”. Club captain Greg Taylor also commented: “ It’s great to finally have fans back, even having a small amount of fans in the ground is a big boost for us as players – when they encourage us it makes a big difference during the game, hopefully we can see more fans back soon”.

Football grounds have certainly been a soulless place without fans, but Wednesday evening showed there was some light at the end of the tunnel – with a total of approximately 10,000 fans being allowed to attend fixtures within the EFL Football League pyramid, and Premier League clubs allowing some fans in this weekend. Hopefully we will soon see football return to the normal we once knew, but for now it’s the small wins that count.