LONDON — Chris Dixon's eyes welled up as he prepared to return to his seat.
From Upton Park to the Olympic Stadium, Dixon has been coming to West Ham games across seven decades. Nine months without being able to come to watch his beloved team has been agony.
“I never thought at my age I would get so excited about winning a ballot for a football match — it's been fantastic,” the 71-year-old Dixon said. “All my supporter friends are gagging to get back. I'm quite emotional really. It gets in my throat. I really am so pleased to be back.”
For the visit of Manchester United, Dixon was part of the first crowd at a Premier League game since March when the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 61,000 in Britain forced unprecedented restrictions on the country.
“Welcome home,” read the message flashing on the stadium’s exterior screen, although the players couldn't deliver on the field, collapsing to lose 3-1 to United after conceding three times in the second half.
Only 2,000 fans were allowed into a stadium that can fit 60,000 on Saturday, such is the lingering threat from COVID-19 which claimed another 397 lives in the 24 hours before the match.
But after months of matches in soulless empty stadiums, having a fan chorus once again for the Cockney club anthem “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” was a godsend.
“We are a tribe,” Dixon said, “the team is a big thing for me.”
Coming to football has long been a welcome distraction for many from everyday life, with fans often travelling the length of the country — however limited the prospect of glory.
The highest West Ham has finished in the league is third in 1986. The last major title was the 1980 FA Cup.
“I go home and away every game up and down the country, it’s just huge,” 31-year-old supporter Ben Harris said. “My life’s back. It’s the one thing I’ve missed all through lockdown. I work hard during the week, my escape is to come here a couple of hours a week, it’s what I do.”
But only half of the Premier League's stadiums are allowed to have fans — mainly in London, where Chelsea also had a couple of thousand watching Saturday's game against Leeds. The other 10 teams, including Leeds and Manchester United, are in cities that remain subject to the toughest coronavirus restrictions, leaving supporters shut out for now.
But the walk to the West Ham stadium, through a packed indoor shopping mall, left fans perplexed at such restricted numbers in vast outdoor arenas.
“I feel very, very safe, absolutely," Dixon said. “Never had one doubt about coming back.”
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Rob Harris, The Associated Press