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10 things learned as Premier League fans return

Chelsea fought back from an early deficit to claim an impressive win against Leeds United at Stamford Bridge.

LONDON -- This was the day Premier League fans returned to stadiums. The day they had been waiting for. The day they hoped for. And it was brilliant to witness it with my own eyes.

March 9 was the last day a Premier League game had fans in attendance. 271 days later, on December 5, fans returned. Other leagues across Europe have had fans return, but England’s top-flight has been banned, until now as the UK government changed their rules this week.

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The 2,000 Chelsea fans (at times it sounded like 20,000) allowed in to Stamford Bridge cheered their players at every chance they got, and booed Leeds’ players at every chance they got. Old friends said hello again in the street outside their favorite pre-game pub. Staff members reunited. It was emotional. Certain moments left goosebumps.

Overall, it provided a warm fuzzy feeling that even though it will take a while to return to normality. It’s on the way back. The Premier League fans return was an emotional moment for everyone.

Having attended plenty of games in empty stadiums during the pandemic, I can tell you this made a huge, huge difference to the overall atmosphere and the intensity of the game. At times it felt like 20,000 fans were present instead of 2,000.

Normality returns

Outside the stadium it was like a regular Saturday in west London. Lots, and lots, of traffic. People doing their shopping, sat in pubs watching sports on TV and sat outside restaurants with heaters on newly-built terraces due to the pandemic. But outside pubs, fans were meeting up again for pre-match pint: ‘how are you mate!?’ and ‘It is great to see you again!’ The buzz in the air transmitted from the street outside the stadium to the pitch.

Players were loving it

The look on the faces of the Chelsea players when they came out just before kick off said it all. I was lucky enough to be sat right behind the Chelsea bench, and Jorginho was joining in the singing. Cesar Azpilicueta was clapping. Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham were smiling. Players are professionals and have played in empty stadiums for nine months, but there’s no doubt they absolutely loved having fans back.

Fans dished out banter

The Chelsea fans behind the goal were goading Illan Meslier: ‘Your mom hates you’ and ‘What are you doing with your feet?’ were just a few of the comments. Bit harsh. Chelsea fans were also not happy with the referee at times and it was just like old times. Chanting against opponents and the officials is an age-old tradition. Premier League fans are known for their ruthlessness and passion and it was on show here.

Premier Leeague

Chelsea’s French striker Olivier Giroud (C) celebrates after scoring the equalising goal in front of the Chelsea fans during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Leeds United at Stamford Bridge in London on December 5, 2020. (Photo by MATTHEW CHILDS / POOL / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by MATTHEW CHILDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Still quiet at times

Stamford Bridge, like most Premier League stadiums, is a big old venue. During spells when fans weren’t chanting you could hear the water system inside as the drains flushed. Hand dryers from nearby toilets were going off. Sounds from door slamming and radios from stewards were going off. Even though there was a lot more noise than there has been, little moments still stuck out to remind you that we are in a pandemic and there are still moments of eerie silence.

Reminders for fans to follow the rules

There was a reminder over the PA system to stop fans from ‘persistent standing’ which is against the COVID-19 rules. It only happened once, after 15 minutes, and that was it. Fans seemed to follow all of the rules closely and were spaced out enough for there to not be any big issues.

Everyone is happy fans have returned

“Really, really nice to be back! I didn’t think they would be this loud!” said a Chelsea staff member dishing out cups of tea at half time. “It’s comforting!” It really was. The background noise of chants going on was soothing, calming and reminded everyone of pre-COVID times. Plenty of staff members were back for the first time too and greetings, elbow bumps and nods were plentiful.

Intensity of the game improved

There was just more energy throughout the game. Both teams played at a high tempo, and both usually do, but there was more drive, more enthusiasm and more direction with fans present. After being at plenty of games during the pandemic, the intensity was a lot lower without fans. 100 percent.

Fans get close-up experience

They got to hear Luke Ayling telling Leeds’ Jack Harrison to ‘slow the f*** down’ and walk when he was subbed off so they could have a breather. They got to hear Diego Llorente yelp in pain and then heckle him the rest of the game. Chelsea’s fans were allowed to interact with players, knowing the players could hear them very clearly, and it created a great atmosphere. They were so involved. You got the sense that the Leeds players didn’t mind being heckled, because at least fans were there to heckle them, but it did have an impact.

Home advantage returns

Even though it is only 2,000 fans, when they got on the back of an opposition player you sensed it got to them. Llorente and Raphinha went missing in the second half once the Chelsea fans had a go at them. Home advantage hasn’t been a thing during the pandemic period, but now it is. Fans roared on their players late in the game and they responded. Reece James stuck to his task and defended well, getting a huge ovation. It helped get Chelsea over the line. “They had an influence,” Marcelo Bielsa said when asked about the fans. They certainly did.

Hope has arrived for the future

For me, the Premier League fans return experiment worked so well in the stadium and in the streets outside that it is only a matter of time that regulations are further relaxed. If London is moved down from Tier 2 to Tier 1 restrictions by the UK government, 4,000 fans will be in attendance under their current rules. That would be easily doable. The Premier League and its clubs want up to 25-30 percent capacity at stadiums, and that may be a push but it could happen soon. Fans returning on this small scale provided hope that it can be done safely. Time will tell if that is the case, but precautions seemed to limit any real danger, and everyone enjoyed it.

Follow @JPW_NBCSports