There might have been facemasks and social distancing, and no post-match signing of autographs or posing for pictures, but after more than a year without the comforts of live sport the sound of sizzling hot dogs returned to England's sports grounds as coronavirus restrictions were eased on Monday.
Both codes of rugby, football, horse and greyhound racing all hosted spectators for the first time in 2021 after the Government allowed larger venues to admit up to 10,000 spectators, with smaller venues having capacities capped at 4,000 or 50 per cent, whichever is the lowest.
For the first time in 14 months at Kingston Park last night [MON], where Newcastle beat Northampton in the Gallagher Premiership, the 1,750 in attendance queued round the block for a fish-and-chip supper, with two-pint cups out in force at the stadium's various watering holes, despite the torrid conditions.
Before the arrival of the controlled and staggered exits at the end of the game, however, normal service had resumed swiftly; it took just one minute before the referee received some stick, and one West Stand denizen proceeded to shout "pedant" at him for most of the match. Later in the evening, 3,138 flocked to Bristol to watch the Bears' West Country derby against Gloucester at Ashton Gate.
After his side's win, Bristol fly-half Callum Sheedy said: "It was unbelievable, you can't quite realise how much you missed fans until they are here. It was amazing.
"We weren't perfect and were far from clinical, but we are so happy to be back and with 3,000 fans which feels like 30,000."
In the Super League, more than 10,000 fans across the night's five matches - at Hull, St Helens, Warrington, Castleford and Leigh - were in attendance, with two second-tier matches also hosting rugby league fans.
Following Leicester's FA Cup triumph against Chelsea on Saturday, played in front of 21,000 at Wembley, last night's two Championship play-off matches followed on from the weekend's success. Barnsley welcomed 4,500 spectators at Oakwell for their semi-final with Swansea, with 2,000 in attendance at Dean Court for the other semi-final first-leg, where Bournemouth faced Brentford. Premier League crowds will return tonight [TUES].
After his side's first-leg win, on the return of fans, Jonathan Woodgate, Bournemouth's manager, said: "It’s unusual to be honest with you. It’s electrifying. They were right behind the players and I think it helped us. I’d like to say thank you to them."
In the world of racing, Jonjo Sanderson, clerk of the course at Redcar, was delighted with an afternoon crowd of 1,000, a not-unusual number for the fixture. “It was a bit strange seeing people walking around after a year without,” he said. “We set aside 800 tickets for sale and 750 were sold on top of which we had about 250 owners, a round figure of 1,000 on site.
“There were lots of smiling faces because people didn’t have to wear masks. Everyone conformed and as the afternoon wore on the atmosphere picked up and there was some good cheering.
“Our (SGO2) capacity is 2,500 so we were keen to test the water today with a smaller crowd than we were allowed and there are a few things we’ll tweak. We’ll see how we get on at our bank holiday fixture at the end of the month but it's good to have them back.”
A sunny Monday evening at Windsor races would normally attract nearly 5,000 racegoers but Martin Cruddace, CEO of ARC racecourses which includes Windsor, was delighted to be hosting just over 2,000 including John Whittingdale, a minister whose remit includes gambling and racing.
“Today is pivotal for the future of the sport – there’s so much to look forward to,” said Cruddace. “It’s the first time Windsor has hosted a crowd since October 2019 and it is great to have all the franchises back like the hot dogs and coffee. There’s been a lovely suppressed, excited buzz about the place all day. Across the group we’ve sold 10,000 tickets this week.”
Some 1,000, including owners, attended Carlisle’s afternoon meeting. “It’s been fantastic,” said clerk of the course, Sulekha Varma. “There’s been a really nice atmosphere. Everyone has been very understanding of the regulations such as having to sit down if having a drink but people are using a lot of common sense. It’s step one on the journey.”
Fans also returned to Romford Greyhound Stadium, but on-course bookmakers were not present.