Sport in England took another step back towards normality as fans were welcomed back to venues across the country on Monday.
After a series of successful pilot events, supporters were permitted back into regular fixtures – albeit in limited numbers – as coronavirus restrictions were eased further.
Bournemouth fans were among the first to benefit as up to 2,000 were admitted to the Vitality Stadium for their Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final first leg against Brentford, which kicked off at 6pm.
Another 4,500 supporters were expected at Barnsley for their play-off against Swansea later in the evening.
There were also a number of fixtures across both codes of rugby, as well as horse and greyhound race meetings, on the first day of the Government’s third step in the coronavirus recovery road map.
Under the new restrictions, larger seated outdoor venues are able to admit up to 10,000 spectators, while smaller outdoor venues will have capacities capped at 4,000 or 50 per cent, whichever is the lowest.
Fans also have to follow rules regarding face-masks, online health checks and the maintaining of social distance.
At Bournemouth, fans were greeted by a message on the scoreboard which read, ‘Welcome back, we’ve missed you’ and pre-match thunderstorms did little to dampen their enthusiasm.
Cherries players received rapturous applause from all four sides of the compact ground as they entered the field, while there were light-hearted jeers for the opposition followed by some mocking chants.
It was only the third time this season – after December wins over Huddersfield and Wycombe – that Bournemouth fans had been present and the first occasion since Jonathan Woodgate replaced Jason Tindall as manager in early February.
Horse racing welcomed back paying spectators at Redcar, Carlisle, Leicester and Windsor.
“It’s grand, great, fantastic, wonderful,” said North Yorkshire trainer Tim Easterby while supervising his runners at Redcar.
“It’s has been soulless going racing this past year, horrendous. I’m so pleased to see people back, it just feels like normal.”
Jockey Tony Hamilton, who won the first race of the day on Grangeclare View, said: “It’s a bit funny seeing everybody here, but it’s great and significantly great for racing.
“Walking back in after the race, getting a round of applause, these are all the things we’ve missed. It’s great, it really is, having an atmosphere back on course – we’ve all missed it.”
Fans will be back in rugby union’s Gallagher Premiership, with leaders Bristol expecting a crowd of 3,138 for the visit of west country neighbours Gloucester and Newcastle playing Northampton in front of 1,750.
Rugby league has a busy programme on Monday night with five Super League matches – Hull can have 5,500 spectators, St Helens and Warrington 4,000 each, Castleford’s capacity is 3,600 and Leigh are working to 2,000 – and two Championship games.
Romford Greyhound Stadium also welcomed back fans but no on-course bookmakers were present.
Premier League crowds will return on Tuesday, with the competition having pushed back its penultimate round of matches to May 18 and 19.
That decision has allowed every club to play one home game in front of supporters before the end of the season on Sunday.
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