For the past 266 days, since the coronavirus pandemic sent sporting events behind closed doors, professional football players have had no choice but to grow accustomed to the lifeless silence that has accompanied their job.
On Wednesday evening, for the time being at least, that era ended in style for some. When the players of Charlton Athletic and Milton Keynes Dons first appeared at the Valley to warm up before their encounter, they were greeted by fans who took to their feet and provided the teams with a long, thunderous ovation.
A total of six EFL teams ushered fans back into the stadium on Wednesday, with Carlisle opening the night at 7pm with a 2-1 win against Salford in League Two. At Charlton, the voices of 2,000 fans dotted around the 27,111 capacity stadium carried to every corner. They cheered each good decision made by their players, and every favourable call from the referee. When the MK Dons team neared the crowd with their first attacks on goal, they showered the away team with petty, mischievous boos.
When the fans first arrived, they were given staggered arrival times in order to ensure there was minimal mixing, and they were very quickly swallowed by the turnstiles after receiving temperature checks. Waiting for each fan on the other side was a free hot chocolate provided by a Charlton sponsor, Andrew Sykes. Even the beverage of choice was a reflection of the times, with hot chocolate deemed preferable to people seeking out milk and sugar for tea.
They each came with their own stories. Ally Hall, a 10-year-old flanked by his uncle and brother in his third year as a constant presence at the Valley, explained with a blazing smile how he adapted to the past nine months without live football. “Since there’s no games, it’s just been so boring and there’s no point in watching football,” he said. “Especially my uncle, he got rid of his Sky because he didn’t like the football with no fans. That’s how boring it was. It was like watching the reserve games.”
Shirley, a security officer who has been working throughout the pandemic as a key worker, has been unable to take much time off since the pandemic began, so she missed Charlton’s test game in September, when the club briefly welcomed 1,000 fans back against Doncaster. For her, returning to the Valley signified a departure from the banality of life over the past nine months.
“I miss my Saturdays,” she said. “To me, people do drugs, people do drink. This is my drug. You know what I mean? It’s my pressure-cooker. Being at work, you can’t let go. Life can be a bit shit sometimes. This is my release.”
For Peter Quinlan, a 70-year-old still filled with energy and vitality, this marked the longest period he has spent away from his team since 1963. “Coming back is brilliant,” he said. “Before this, well, you’ve gotta live with it. It’s part and parcel of what’s happening all over the world. I’ve got no qualms about it. I knew we were going to get back eventually, but it’s small steps. Eventually we’ll get the ground filled up and we’ll be back to some form of normality. But now, 2,000 is better than nothing.”
What they saw was not always ideal. It was actually MK Dons, despite arriving in south-east London 19th in the league, who burst into the game with greater potency, creating so many of the clear chances in the opening half. That was perhaps a reflection of the simple value of the energy emanating from the surrounding fans, regardless of which team it was aimed at. Encouraged by the noise, tempers occasionally frayed, with Darren Pratley pushing Matthew Sorinola and both players ending up in the book.
Still, as the fans amplified their voices once more and were able release the energy suppressed over the past nine months, for a change the result – 1-0 to the visitors – was not of sole importance. “I’ve only really got one passion in life, apart from winning the lottery, and this is it,” said Shirley, finishing off a final cigarette before she entered the stadium. “It has been ever since I’ve been about 12, 13, since I first started coming down. Every time I could get down here, I have. It’s in the blood – grandfather, father, me. And that’s how it goes. It’s good to be back.”