It’s something of an understatement to say that a lot has happened since the 28th February; nearly seven months ago and the last occasion many City fans had the opportunity to visit Carrow Road.
Therefore, last Wednesday morning’s announcement by the EFL that City’s game against Preston North End had been selected as one of ten pilot games naturally generated significant social media interest.
For some, going to the game simply wasn’t an option; self-isolating or living with vulnerable family members meant they weren’t willing to take the risk. For others, it was more a personal view that until crowd numbers were significantly increased, so they could enjoy the whole match day experience; the atmosphere, attending with friends and family, there really was little point.
The decision whether or not to apply for tickets through the random ballot was, of course, always going to be a matter of personal preference. No rights or wrongs, you either wanted to go, or you didn’t. Respect to all, whatever their decision.
Personally, I had no hesitation in applying. Some of my colleagues at the Canaries Trust have been actively involved, along with other fan groups, in the “return to the game” consultation process run. The extent of work undertaken by the Club, with full liaison with the relevant authorities, was detailed and thorough. There was never any doubt in my mind that the Club would be ready to go, as soon as they were given the green light by the EFL.
As for the ballot itself, I wasn’t overly hopeful, with 22,000 season tickets holders, the odds of success were pretty long, irrespective of how many actually applied. So, it was a pleasant surprise when the ‘congratulations’ email arrived just after midday on Friday.
Travelling to the game by train, my usual mode of transport, wasn’t an overly desirable option, so the car it was, albeit I was at least spared being mugged for a parking fee as County Hall wasn’t open.
The walk down to the ground itself lacked the usual sense of anticipation – there was literally no one around, although a pedestrian walking towards me up King Street uttered, “one of the lucky ones. Enjoy the match” with a broad smile.
Carrow Road lacked the usual street vendors, with security barriers across the roadway and also behind the River End stand, extending down toward the ticket office.
It’s been a while since I had to queue to collect for tickets for a home game, but the queue was relatively short and quick-moving.
If there was one thing I was slightly nervous about, it was the irrational fear of the possibility of failing the non-invasive temperature check, having driven all that way, only to be refused admission.
Not that I should have worried. The reading was perfectly normal at 36.6oC and, after that, the photo ID and ticket checking process was a breeze. Before I knew it, I was within the inner external secure ring.
Once inside the ground, all the food kiosks and bars were closed, with a proliferation of social distancing signage everywhere, as you’d expect.
Over the years I’ve stood and sat in all four corners of Carrow Road, but this was another first for me, Area G, usually the domain of away fans, but a surreal experience minus any occupants in the adjacent E-block!
The other surreal moment was realising that I was surrounded by singletons. It shouldn’t have surprised me really, but there was someone missing.
Dad turned 80 over the summer and it’s the first time in many a year that he’s been absent from at least part of my matchday experience. I had a moment thought – when, if ever, will he be back? It’s not that he doesn’t want to return, but he knows the associated health risks and, as a consequence, doesn’t want to attend for the foreseeable future.
Then there was another unexpected hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment, as the City players emerged from the tunnel for their warm ups – the spontaneous outbreak of ‘Yellows’ from the South Stand, something so natural, yet all the more moving simply because it’s not been heard and sung for so long.
As for the game itself, the atmosphere was actually much better than I expected – a 1,000 spectators really can and did make a significant difference and was infinitely better than the synthetic crowd noise we’ve had to endure during all the behind-closed-doors games.
Before I knew it the 90 minutes were up and we were being instructed by the matchday stewards to depart, row by row, from the ground.
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience, well organised and I felt safe throughout.
So, that’s my turn over – I’ve no idea when I’ll next be back.
Quite when the next pilot test game is going to be is impossible to predict – how many laps of this ‘spectator relay’ will we have before we get full attendances again?
For now, the attendance baton is passed on. Whoever is next up, enjoy it (that could now be some time – Ed).
Like many things in life, you really don’t know how much you miss something until it is taken away or gone completely.