It almost felt like old times at Wembley on Sunday as a crowd of 8,000 watched Manchester City beat Tottenham Hotspur in English football’s League Cup final – the biggest attendance at a UK sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago.
As part of the British government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), the final was being used as a pilot event to test the safe return of supporters.
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And while the 2,000 fans permitted from each club, plus 4,000 local residents, looked a little lost in the vast expanses of the 90,000-seater stadium, the sound of them making their voices heard was an uplifting one.
For more than a year, England’s stadiums have been silent, apart from a brief window late last year when small crowds were allowed before a deadly resurgence of COVID-19.
It has been a dispiriting time for the game, with fans forced to watch at home from their sofas with artificial crowd effects pumped in to create a sense of normality.
But the sound of fans singing their songs at Wembley offered hope of better times ahead as Britain’s vaccine rollout continues to drive down deaths and infections from the virus.
City’s fans were wedged into one corner while Tottenham’s were at the other end. There were also 4,000 local residents and NHS workers at the game.
To get into Wembley, fans had to take a lateral flow coronavirus test at a designated site in the 24 hours before the game and produce proof of a negative result.
They also have to take two PCR tests at home – one before travelling to the match and another five days afterwards.
As people gathered outside the stadium the mood was good-natured with some rival fans joining together to protest the now-doomed European Super League.
City and Tottenham were two of six English clubs that announced their plan to join six Spanish and Italian giants to form the new league last week.
Once inside the old rituals began after a poignant rendition of the national anthem from 92 NHS workers played out on Wembley’s giant video screens.
As has been repeated regularly in this seismic week for the sport following the Super League fiasco, the game is nothing without fans.
Both sets were quickly back in the old groove.
The announcement of the respective starting line-ups was booed by the opposing fans, while there was plenty of strong language hurled towards opposing players and match officials once the showpiece game kicked off.
Aymeric Laporte’s header sealed victory for City and their fans serenaded the players in the corner after the trophy was presented to captain Fernandinho – an outpouring of pent up joy after the dark months of the past year.
It was clear what the support meant to City’s players as they joined in singing the club’s anthem Blue Moon.
City midfielder Riyad Mahrez summed up the mood.
“They made a massive difference, 8,000 was amazing and we look forward to having more of them back,” he said.
For Tottenham’s supporters, however, it was another disappointment and the continuation of a trophy drought stretching back to 2008.
Some 21,000 fans are expected at next month’s FA Cup final while Wembley hopes to have at least 22,500 at the eight Euro 2020 games it will stage this year.