Pies, pints and a face mask: What the return to live football was like

Football is back, and it’s magic.

That was how it felt to wake up this morning knowing I was going to the match.

It was also a bit strange of course to be one of just 2,500 people who were allowed to go to the Amex stadium to watch Brighton play Chelsea in a pre-season friendly.

We would be the first fans in the country to see a live game after months of lockdown.

John-Paul Ford Rojas and his family, excited for game day
Image: Our reporter John-Paul Ford Rojas and his family, excited for game day

But could it be anything like cheering on my team with more than ten times as many other Brighton supporters around me?

After six months away, just being able to go was special.

I could feel that buoyant, alive feeling that goes all the way back to my teenage years – the day when everything else stops, when Saturday comes.

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Amex, interior, by JP Ford Rojas
Image: It has been six months since fans could attend games

It starts with the matchday routine.

These days for me it’s normally a drive to Lewes, just up the road from the Amex, before taking the train to the ground.

But the new normal meant fans were advised against using public transport, so I had to pre-book a spot in a car park a few minutes’ walk from the stadium.

Yet it’s hard to see how out of-town stadia like Brighton, which rely on bus, train and park-and-ride links, will manage when more people need to come and limited car parking space won’t be enough.

Amex, interior, by JP Ford Rojas
Image: A limited number of fans were allowed to attend

The most important thing to remember to bring, together with my ticket, was my face mask.

The rule was that masks must be worn even in the walk up to the stadium, and in the concourses, only to be removed when you take your seat.

It was all part of a new “code of conduct” containing a blizzard of new regulations, covering things like queuing (keep your distance), hugging (don’t do it) and hand washing (do a lot of it).

The socially distanced queue outside of the Amex
Image: The socially distanced queue outside the Amex

Going into the stadium was pretty simple, having shown my ticket and photo ID (removing my mask for a moment to show that it really was my name on the ticket).

Getting the traditional pie and pint in the concourse was a bit more confusing.

Drinking alcohol in the stands is banned at football, yet beer was on sale at the Amex as it normally is.

So it had to be drunk in the concourse below the stand – where masks are supposed to be worn.

In practice, people removed the masks to enjoy their food and drink.

That made the pre-match atmosphere feel a bit more normal.

Amex, interior, by JP Ford Rojas
Image: Getting a pie and pint wasn’t a problem, but eating and drinking them…

But coming out into the stadium itself it was striking, almost eerie to see mostly empty seats in three quarters of the ground.

Most of the 2,500 allowed in were concentrated in the east stand and I had chosen a spot right opposite my normal season ticket place in the west.

Each fan was allowed to choose, when booking, a seat with a gap of three empty ones from the next, making a neat little pattern of people when seen from a distance.

But despite the big gaps there seemed to be an unusual intensity about the crowd and when the players ran onto the pitch we all joined in a full-throated rendition of Brighton’s anthem “Sussex by the Sea”. It was that magic again.

The game was meaningless but still full of drama and not without passion.

Players seemed heartened to be being watched by real supporters again after months playing at empty venues.

Amex, exterior, by JP Ford Rojas
Image: Fans were told to follow a code of conduct while attending

There were more songs and the inevitable barracking of the referee and his officials (who might not have been so thrilled about the crowd’s return).

Fans’ favourite Yves Bissouma danced and celebrated in front of us at the end as we sang his name to the now-customary tune of The Champs’ Tequila.

The match had ended 1-1 after a late penalty scored by Pascal Gross for Brighton.

Brighton had earlier had another penalty saved and also seen goalkeeper Christian Walton, himself on as a substitute, stretchered off after landing heavily when jumping for the ball.

The two teams will repeat the fixture when the Premier League resumes in a couple of weeks’ time.

I wish I could be back to see it or at least return to watch my team again before too long, and I hope more people can come next time.

The truth is that as fans we really don’t know when that will happen so it was great to enjoy what I could today.

This experiment with returning to something like normal was not perfect.

But the magic was still there.



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