“You can hold things up against yourself,” the assistant at the door of the Seagulls Store said, politely but firmly, “just don’t try anything on.”
Welcome to the Covid-secure live football experience, and one of many new rules that fans will need to get used to if pilots with paying spectators lead, as everyone hopes, to a steady return of crowds at football and other sports from 1 October.
Within a few weeks, if all goes well, hundreds of thousands of fans will finally set off on their own personal version of the match-day journey that 2,500 Brighton fans made to the American Express Community Stadium on Saturday. It will feel instantly familiar and at the same time, thoroughly different, as socially distanced football becomes the norm until … well, who can say?
There were a handful of “dos” in the long pre-match email sent to all Brighton supporters lucky enough to get a ticket to the friendly against Chelsea – the first meeting between two Premier League sides in front of a paying audience since Leicester hosted Aston Villa on 9 March. Bring your photo ID. Remember your face covering. Keep washing your hands.
There were considerably more “don’ts”: don’t switch seats, don’t sit next to anyone at all, even if they are in your family group, don’t leave your seat unless you have to, and definitely don’t engage in fist bumps, high-fives or hugs.
There was not, as it turned out, much reason for home fans to anything of the sort during the first 45 minutes.
There was plenty of noise from the one and a half stands that were open, including a burst of “Can you hear the Chelsea sing?” after three minutes from supporters in the seats where the away fans would normally be, but Timo Werner’s first goal for Chelsea arrived a minute later.
Ben White’s first appearance alongside Lewis Dunk in the No 3 shirt was an obvious chance to poke fun at Leeds fans and their campaign to “free Ben White” but while the home side looked quick and bright in possession, chances good enough to get the fans on their feet were few and far between.
Even a goal behind at half-time, however, this was still a much happier crowd than the one that left the Amex six months ago to the day after a 1-0 defeat by arch-rivals Crystal Palace in the last home game before lockdown.
Only season-ticket holders were able to apply to watch on Saturday and for most of those in attendance, half a year was much longer than they had ever been parted from their team before.
As ever at the Amex – in fact, at just about any ground, anywhere – the queues for food and drink at half-time were enough to put anyone off. But everyone was just about a metre apart, and compliance with the rules on face coverings was 100%.
All anyone really wanted or needed, though, was a goal for Brighton, and not long into the second half, it seemed imminent, as Neal Maupay stepped up to take a penalty. But Willy Caballero guessed right (well, left) and turned it away brilliantly, and while the introduction of Tariq Lamptey – who was spirited away from Chelsea a few months ago – kept everyone entertained as he flew up and down the right wing in front of the stand, it seemed more and more likely that Werner’s goal would be decisive.
Until, three minutes from time, another rash challenge by a Chelsea defender led to another penalty. This time, Pascal Gross made no mistake.
“It’s been amazing,” Dave, a life-long season-ticket holder, said as he applauded his team off the pitch. “You wouldn’t have thought in June that it would have been possible to be back here today, and now you can hope that there’ll be more back in October. They’ve done a great job with all of it.”
For John Walters and his son Bill, it was “great to get back to a little bit of normality”. “When they played Boris Johnson’s speech before the match [telling everyone to ‘stay at home’], it was quite moving,” he said, “and now we hope that we’re moving out of the other side, it would great to attend some more games.
“It will be more difficult with more people in, but as long as the fans behave, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work with 12,000 here [in all four stands]. The information and the organisation has all been really good and I think that overall, we were the better team.”
For Wendy from Eastbourne, the only minor complaint was that beers poured in preparation for the half-time rush had been a little flat by the time it arrived. “There was a real atmosphere,” Wendy said. “It’s just great to be back.”