A rendition of ‘Sussex by the Sea’ never fails to stir the soul and send a tingle down the spine. ‘You can tell them all that we stand or fall,’ is the refrain on this part of the south cost and on Saturday they belted out their anthem with feeling.
It has been quite some time. One hundred and 82 days to be precise since more than 30,000 packed into the Amex Stadium and swallowed defeat in the derby against Crystal Palace, bitter rivals from yonder end of the M23.
They returned in very different mood, with not a trace of animosity in the air. This was more about solidarity: ripple of polite applause as the visitors emerged, a terrific roar when Lewis Dunk led out the home team.
2,500 fans were present to watch Brighton take on Chelsea in a pre-season clash on Saturday
The event marked the first time that supporters were allowed into a ground since lockdown
It seemed as if this humble event might be even more important to the grand scheme than Chelsea’s return in the Premier League in a fortnight.
Football desperately needs its fans in the stands, even if in limited numbers during an initial phase. Clubs will not survive for much longer without them. Not at this level – Brighton lose a seven-figure sum for every game behind closed doors – and the impact is even more perilous in the three tiers of the EFL and beyond.
‘The crowd were great,’ said manager Graham Potter. ‘It was so nice to see people back in the ground and hear them engaging with the game. We all know football is not the same without the fans, but we had to adapt.
The hosts Brighton will lose a hefty seven-figure sum for every games behind closed doors
‘This was a first step back and I hope there will be more but we are still dealing with the virus and the pandemic. We have to be sensible and do it in the right way.’
There are bigger pilot events to come – one with a 10,000 capacity for the FA Trophy and Vase finals at Wembley – but early signs were encouraging.
‘We were very pleased with the way it’s gone,’ said Brighton chief executive Paul Barber. ‘Our fans were fantastic. They followed the signage religiously and were respectful to our staff.
‘I’ve had messages and emails from people who enjoyed being back inside the stadium. It has been a long time for them to be away and it was good to see smiling faces and a lot of excitement; a sense of relief and some light at the end of the tunnel.’
The government gave approval for the game and the fans were Brighton season-ticket holders
Barber and his staff worked round the clock to put the protocol in place and get Government approval for this event.
The two-and-a-half-thousand spectators, all Brighton season-ticket holders selected from the club’s loyalty scheme, were dotted around giving a chequerboard effect to the East Stand, with a few in another section of the South Stand, behind one goal.
They completed medical questionnaires ahead of the game and consented to tracking and tracing.
There was hand sanitiser galore outside the ground. Supporters arrived in orderly fashion, subdued, and lined up, carefully spaced apart as they pulled club-branded masks across their faces.
Those present had their temperatures checked outside and also consented to track and trace
There were random temperature checks on entry, and food and drink, including alcohol, available to buy at the cashless kiosks. Once in their seats, supporters were able to remove their masks and signing was allowed.
They went through the repertoire, starting with the tried and tested ‘Seagulls’ chant as Brighton paraded their new yellow away kit and new signing Adam Lallana, recruited on a free from champions Liverpool.
Chelsea are among several clubs with players in quarantine for various reasons. There were first starts in blue, however, for Hakim Ziyech, wide on the right, and Timo Werner, up front through the centre.
Werner opened the scoring within four minutes. Callum Hudson-Odoi mistimed a header from a Ziyech cross and it fell perfectly for the £54million striker to tap in from close range. There was a hint of offside and no video assistance for the officials.
Timo Werner (right) opened the scoring for Chelsea on the south coast within four minutes
Supporters had been able to remove their masks when in their seats and also belt out chants
Brighton’s players raised the question with the assistant referee but the home fans fought off the urge to launch into a chorus of abuse.
Good humour won over. ‘One nil and you still don’t sing,’ they chanted at absent Chelsea fans, although were unable to maintain their dignified silence when the flag was raised to rule Ziyech offside, as half-time approach. Up went an ironic cheer.
Another, this time without the irony, followed when they were awarded the chance to equalise from a penalty in the second half. Willy Caballero, on at half-time to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga, saved Neal Maupay’s spot-kick.
The game offered enough to hold the attention even in a second half littered with interruptions.
Injury forced Ziyech off, which will concern Lampard, and Brighton ‘keeper Christian Walton, who impressed on loan at Blackburn last season, was carried from the pitch on a stretcher after falling badly as he collected a cross.
Pascal Gross levelled from the penalty spot in Brighton’s second spot kick of the encounter
The return of fans encapsulated what football is about and those at the game will be thanked
Olivier Giroud left with a heavy bandage around a head wound, by which time Pascal Gross had made it 1-1 by converting Brighton’s second penalty of the game.
Pre-season games are never about the result. It is usually all about fitness and managers searching for form and chemistry in combinations. This was less about the result than ever. Still it was good to hear the noise when the equaliser went in.
More than good, in fact. It is what football is about. Fans stood to applaud their team at the end, waved their flags and sang about Potter’s blue-and-white army and joined in a popular tune in honour of Yves Bissouma, while maintaining their social distances.
The rest of football will thank them for it. This warmed the heart on an August Bank Holiday weekend when hats and scarves were required to beat the chill in good old Sussex by the Sea.