Sport in England took another step towards normality as fans were welcomed back to venues across the country on Monday.
After a series of successful pilot events, supporters were permitted back into regular fixtures – albeit in limited numbers – as coronavirus restrictions were eased further.
Bournemouth and Barnsley football fans were among the first to benefit as crowds were allowed for their Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final first legs against Brentford and Swansea respectively.
The top flights in both codes of rugby also saw spectators returning, as did horse and greyhound race meetings, on the first day of step three in the Government’s coronavirus recovery roadmap.
Under changed restrictions, larger seated outdoor venues are now able to admit up to 10,000 spectators while smaller outdoor venues have capacities capped at 4,000 or 50 per cent, whichever is the lowest.
Fans also have to follow rules regarding face-masks, online health checks and the maintaining of social distance to be able to attend.
At Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, the 2,000 crowd were greeted by a message on the scoreboard which read: “Welcome back, we’ve missed you,” and there was plenty of enthusiasm despite pre-match thunderstorms.
The Cherries players received rapturous applause from all four sides of the compact ground before kick-off, while there were light-hearted jeers for the opposition followed by some mocking chants.
“The atmosphere was just unbelievable, electrifying,” said Bournemouth manager Jonathan Woodgate after his side’s 1-0 win.
“I thought that helped our players. They were constantly behind them, they liked the way we were playing and they fully bought into what the team was doing.”
There was similar pre-match anticipation in South Yorkshire as 4,500 Barnsley fans became the first to see their side in a home match since March 2020.
Capturing the upbeat atmosphere, the stadium announcer yelled: “It gives me great pleasure to be able to say this for the first time in 436 days…. Welcome to Oakwell!”
Pubs around Ashton Gate reported a brisk trade as Gallagher Premiership leaders Bristol welcomed a crowd of 3,128 for the west country derby against Gloucester.
Bristol have won the European Challenge Cup and become the dominant Premiership force since they last played in front of a home crowd.
Supporters hoping to see them maintain their title push began arriving two hours before kick-off and were spread around the Atyeo, Lansdown and Dolman stands.
The night’s other match saw Newcastle playing Northampton in front of 1,750.
Five Betfred Super League matches were put back from the weekend to Monday to allow spectators to attend.
Hull housed the biggest crowd, with 5,527 spread around all four stands of the KCOM Stadium for their defeat by Catalans Dragons.
Champions St Helens opened the doors at the Totally Wicked Stadium to 4,000 ballot-winners for their clash with Salford, although the bars remained shut. Chairman Eamonn McManus admitted it would have been more trouble than it was worth to open them.
Warrington hosted Huddersfield in front of a similar crowd, Castleford’s capacity was 3,600 for the visit of Hull KR and Leigh’s was 2,000 for the derby against Wigan.
Horse racing welcomed back paying spectators at Redcar, Carlisle, Leicester and Windsor.
“It’s grand, great, fantastic, wonderful,” said North Yorkshire trainer Tim Easterby while supervising his runners at Redcar.
“It’s been soulless going racing this past year, horrendous. I’m so pleased to see people back, it just feels like normal.”
Romford Greyhound Stadium also welcomed back fans but no on-course bookmakers were present.
Crowds will return to the Premier League on Tuesday. The competition rearranged a round of matches for May 18 and 19 to allow all clubs the chance to play one home game in front of supporters before the end of the season on Sunday.