FOOTBALL finally welcomed back fans as 4,000 Leicester and Southampton followers streamed into Wembley for Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final.
The lucky ‘few’ strolled in the sunshine to the home of football without the usual packed pavements for such a big match before watching the action in the specially-prepared stadium.
They looked ultra-relaxed and just happy to be there after the government let the FA select the clash as a one-off pilot event.
That’s before the May 17 nationwide date when crowds of up to 10,000 can officially return following the coronavirus lockdown.
But Brent Council successfully asked for its residents to be the only ones let in on Sunday – as Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner earned the Foxes a Wembley return in the final against Chelsea next month.
And before the game fans were in socially-distanced groups as they arrived in dribs and drabs.
Once inside, they took their place in well-separated seated areas.
Masked stewards had been busy inside and out of Wembley preparing well before the 6.30pm kick-off.
And not surprisingly once the match kicked off the ‘atmosphere’ was in rich contrast to pre-coronavirus times, calmer and obviously much quieter.
High-flying Leicester will now face Champions League semi-finalists Chelsea in the final of the world’s oldest Cup competition, on May 15.
It followed Saturday’s last-four tie behind closed doors, where the Blues overcame Manchester City 1-0.
Wembley chiefs hope 20,000 fans will be allowed in for the final.
FIRST STEP TOWARDS THE REAL THING
IT was a million miles away from the real thing but it was a start, writes DAVE KIDD.
Football’s long period of silence was broken by the polite applause of 4,000 impartial local residents and NHS workers, all armed with negative Covid tests, rather than the roars and the folk songs of actual supporters.
It sounded more like a low-key county cricket match than an FA Cup semi-final but it was a tentative first step on the road out of lockdown, back to the aim of passionate full houses at English football matches next season.
There were a couple of blokes in Leicester shirts spotted on Wembley Way before kick-off and there were a few largely unsuccessful attempts at starting chants on behalf of Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Yet there was no pretence that Jamie Vardy was having a party or that the Saints were going marching in. These were spectators, not supporters.
The doctors, nurses and teachers of Brent could never have imagined a year or so ago that the chance to watch Leicester versus Southampton could feel like such a treat.
They applauded Kelechi Iheanacho’s winner but the biggest cheer they mustered was when they clapped themselves as the PA announcer thanked them for their attendance – though it was refreshing to have them here all the same.
Next week, there will be 8,000 here at Wembley for the Carabao Cup Final – including 2,000 fans of both Manchester City and Tottenham, perhaps attending their clubs’ last ever final in English domestic football.
Then 22,000 are expected to attend the FA Cup Final between Leicester and Chelsea next month.
We had a false dawn in December when many clubs were allowed up to 2,000 fans inside grounds – and even numbers as small as that brought a significant edge to those matches, restoring home advantage, swaying players and referees.
And above all, making football feel like football again.
This time, we hope, there should be no backward steps.
Football without supporters is nothing, they say.
Football with only spectators is better than nothing, at least.
And the FA will seek approval from Uefa for 45,000 or even more for the four knockout games it will be hosting in the Euros.
That includes both semi-finals and the final.
Those attending trial events, such as Sunday’s match, have to go through a strict procedure beforehand.
They have to show a negative lateral flow test result from the past 36 hours.
And they must take a laboratory PCR test five days after the event
What’s more, all fans need to consent to taking part in the government’s research programme, with Test and Trace data shared with local authorities.
That will help detect any Covid-19 outbreaks in the local areas.
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