Chelsea website columnist and season ticket holder Giles Smith was one of the lucky few supporting the Blues against Leeds from the stands, and here he details that new experience and beams with pride at getting praise for his showing on the night...
The reviews came in fast, with Frank Sinclair among the first to issue a verdict: ‘@ChelseaFC fans unbelievable,’ he tweeted, ‘creating the 12 man in a practically empty stadium.’
Well, as my son and I agreed, it’s always nice to have your contribution noticed. And obviously, it meant a lot coming from Frank Sinclair, of all people, a man who really understands work-rate.
Indeed, if you had told me, back in the Nineties, when I was watching Frank in his defensive pomp, that one day I personally would be on the end of a ball emoji, a blue heart emoji and a clapping hands emoji in a tweet from the legend himself, I would have… well, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about, obviously, because we didn’t have emojis in those days, nor tweets. But you know what I mean.
And then there was the acclaim from Cesar Azpilicueta. ‘Double win tonight!’ the captain remarked. ‘3 important points + fans back!’
‘We have missed you a lot,’ the captain continued, expressing what was very much a mutual feeling, and accompanying his post with a photograph of me and my eldest son. Well, not just us. A photograph of quite a lot of people in the West Lower, in fact. But definitely including us.
Again, one doesn’t expect to be singled out for individual praise, and it’s not why one comes to the football. But it was good to feel one’s performance had been appreciated.
It was a privilege, of course, to get the nod to be among the first draft of returning fans who lifted the team to a 3-1 win over Leeds last weekend. And it obviously worked, too - not just the system, which seemed to function with silky smoothness, but also the upshot, a comprehensive victory.
Indeed, I appreciate that the arrangements for ticketing over this tentative comeback period had already been announced and put in place – a ballot system with admission eventually for all season ticket-holders who want to go, on a rota basis. But I’ve got to be honest: as I walked away from Stamford Bridge on Saturday, with the satisfaction of the night still fresh, it occurred to me to wonder whether the club might belatedly rip up those arrangements and instead simply field the same crowd in the Champions League game on Tuesday against Krasnodar.
In fact (I found myself thinking), wouldn’t it make sense for the box office to keep issuing tickets to those same 2000 people, including myself, until such time as the team failed to win in their presence? At that point, OK, you would take a look at it and maybe think about making some changes, bringing some fresh faces in and trying something different. In the meantime, though – well, stick with a winning formula, surely.
But no. As they had always made clear they would, the management elected to shake it up, go fully rotational and make 2000 changes to the crowd that faced Krasnodar. And fair enough. It’s a squad game these days - we all know that. There are plenty of people who have had their heads down and been working hard all lockdown long, and who are bursting for their chance to get some game-time. They should be given that chance to show what they can do.
At the same time, would Saturday’s selection have come out with a win and all three points on Tuesday? It’s not for me to say. Let’s not even ask.
For now it’s enough to have got lucky at the first time of asking, and to have been there at the start of what is probably going to be a lengthy journey back for supporters at matches. And it’s already been too long - nine months almost to the day since I had set foot in the Bridge, an unprecedented hiatus in my adult lifetime, the equivalent of three close seasons bolted together to form one tediously featureless whole.
And what an experience that return was - a combination of the blissfully and reassuringly familiar and the completely and utterly strange. On the one hand, the old routine: the usual parking slot, the usual walk to the petrol station for sweets, all that entirely peripheral and completely trivial stuff about going to the football that one has missed more than one knew one would.
On the other hand, the totally alien aspects of it all: the practically empty streets, the general quiet, the absence of police horses, the traffic still running on the Fulham Road as if it wasn’t a matchday at all... And then the necessary but eerily dystopian business of filing, masked, through the tented enclosure on the West Stand concourse, getting your temperature checked and presenting your passport and paperwork.
Equally disorienting were the echoes and the separation from people. To have that much space around you at a football match… why, this is what it must be like to support QPR. And then there was the somewhat mournful sight of the corner of the Matthew Harding Upper, where I would normally go, but now sitting there unoccupied, the furniture wrapped in drapes and dutifully minded by a very lonely looking steward.
Football, then, but not as we know it – but football, nonetheless, and we’ll take it, just for the glimpses of the old and much-missed normal.
Of course, it was also an ultimately tantalising experience - slightly cruel in the way it whetted the appetite. Because for me and my son, that’s it for a while. It stands to reason that, with 25,000 or so season ticket-holders sharing 2000 seats, and with 13 home Premier League games remaining and just two home cup ties currently guaranteed (FA Cup third round against Morecambe, and Champions League round of 16 against whoever that may be), the chances of getting back into the ground this season under the current system are fairly slender.
But whatever happens now, I know we’ll always have Leeds. And we’ll always have the applause that rained down afterwards from people who know what they’re talking about, and the satisfaction of a job well done.