Jane Utley will be one of 4,500 lucky Tykes when she gets into Oakwell on Monday evening. The Barnsley fan will watch her team play their most important game in a decade, a Championship play-off semi-final first leg with Swansea. As with every other fan in the ground, it will be her first match in 14 months.
“I think we’ll have lost our voices on the Tuesday,” she says. “I think people are going to try and make it noisy. I’m sure that anyone who normally just sits there will want to join in and shout more because it is going to be special, isn’t it, after 14 months not being there.”
Utley says she would watch Barnsley as many as 100 times a season in pre-pandemic times. The men’s team home and away, the under-23s team, the under-18s. “I also collect autographs, but obviously that all stopped with Covid,” she says.
Barnsley have had a storming season in English football’s second tier, playing dynamic, attractive football with a team full of young players. The fans have not been able to see them once. There was talk of a pilot match last autumn, Utley says, “then Boris put us in tier three”. Now, under step three of the government’s phased reopening fans are back and, in Barnsley’s case at least, it is just in time.
On what is likely to be an unusually busy Monday in the sporting calendar, a number of sports have seized the opportunity to let supporters back in. Barnsley kick off at Oakwell at 8pm, with the other play-off semi between Bournemouth and Brentford scheduled before them at six. There will be also be horse racing at Redcar and Carlisle in the afternoon and at Leicester and Windsor in the evening. In rugby union the Premiership leaders, Bristol, take on Gloucester while Newcastle also play Northampton.
Super League has moved five of its six matches from the weekend to Monday night in order to accommodate fans. When elite sport had a tentative and short-lived return of supporters last autumn much of the north of England missed out and Rugby League did so altogether, with four scheduled pilot matches cancelled with a week’s notice at the end of September.
“The inability of supporters to attend fixtures has left a big gap,” the Super League said ahead of Monday’s matches. “For everyone involved in the game – administrators, match officials, those supporters and especially the players who feed off the passion – Monday night will be a reminder of what we’ve missed, as well as a welcome step back towards normality, and bigger crowds to come.”
That hope of bigger, capacity crowds is consistent across all sports. From rugby league to the Premier League the financial viability of all elite sport is under question without fans fully back in the ground. Government support and commercial loans have allowed clubs and competitions to keep going to this point, but there is a clear desperation for things to return to normal in the summer.
Whether it will ever be the same as it was before the pandemic though remains to be seen. Utley admits she has not told many people about getting a ticket for Barnsley’s game, not wanting to be seen to rub it in. Those she does know are going cannot go in together, with each given their own timed window for admission. The supporter-run bar, Redfearn’s, will be closed.
“No it’s not going to be the same thing,” she says. “We’ll be watching the match live, but there’s one-way systems in place with stickers, there’s no food and drink because we can’t sit at tables. They said they’ll clean the toilets while we’re watching the match so they are ready for half-time and then they’ll be cleaned again in the second half.”
However strange an experience it will be, it’s still a match. “I’m excited to be able to watch it live and not just to jump up and down at home and have my mother come to see what’s happened,” Utley says. “It will be more spontaneous. Going through [to the play-off final] will be the icing on the cake but we won’t cross too many bridges, getting to the match is first.”