Man United bewilder as Premier League fans return to West Ham’s London Stadium

It had been 271 days since a football crowd celebrated a goal inside a Premier League stadium, but as West Ham became the first English top-flight club to open its doors to fans since the COVID-19 pandemic sent the sport into lockdown in March, visitors Manchester United ensured the 2,000 home supporters felt joy and despair at the London Stadium, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side coming from behind to win 3-1.

Somehow, despite their inconsistency and, at times, incompetence this season, Man United moved within two points of top spot in the Premier League table immediately after this win, their ninth straight in league play on the road. Football without fans has been strange at times, but now that they have returned, United continue to bewilder all those who attempt to understand them.

Not since Leicester’s 4-0 win against Aston Villa at the King Power Stadium on March 9 have top-flight supporters in England been able to experience the full range of emotions that come with watching in the flesh, but as those West Ham fans walked away from the London Stadium after David Moyes’s team threw away a 1-0 half-time lead, they might just have wished they chose to stay away.

“I was pleased we had 2,000 fans in,” Moyes said. “I would like it to be many more. I hope the West Ham fans enjoyed it. The bit we just missed out on was maybe not managing the game well enough.”

That is the burden of being a fan, though. You want to witness every kick, but if it goes against your team, it is better to be anywhere else in the world. Maybe, on this occasion and after being locked out for so long, defeat was a price worth paying, just to “be there” again.

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Indeed, even the most passionate Hammers fan would find it difficult not to secretly admire the quality of Man United’s goals, which came in a 13-minute second-half period from Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford and turned the game on its head after Tomas Soucek had given West Ham a deserved lead seven minutes before half-time.

English football had hoped to welcome supporters back inside stadiums in October, with detailed plans drawn up by Premier League clubs to stage games in grounds with a maximum 25% capacity. But a surge in COVID-19 cases saw that proposal shelved — the government called it a “pause” — and stadiums stayed empty.

Following the end of a month-long lockdown on Dec 2, though, a new system of tiers allowed for the tentative reopening of some competitive sport to spectators. Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, Leeds and Newcastle were placed in Tier 3 and so will not have fans in grounds yet, but with the likes of London and Liverpool in Tier 2, clubs from those cities can have up to 2,000 attending.

The Premier League is world-renowned for the spectacle of games being played inside full, noisy stadiums, so such a small number is the first step on a long road back to normality, especially in a cavernous arena like the London Stadium, which ordinarily holds 54,000, but football has been desperate to open its doors again, regardless of the numbers involved.

“It is something the game has missed [fans being back in stadiums],” Rashford said. “It is what makes it special. It is a great feeling to have fans back.”

Like most clubs, West Ham selected attendees with a ballot of season ticket holders and all were given seats in the Billy Bonds Stand. Upon arrival, they had to undergo a temperature check and then sat one metre apart from each other. Face masks were compulsory, singing was allowed, providing it was not excessive, but hugging and high-fiving was not permitted. Moving around was discouraged, and fans were told to avoid peak times such as half-time and full-time for toilet breaks.

All of the above might have become standard operating procedure in recent months, but with football often regarded as a kind of release, the restrictions will be felt until the old normal is back again.

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Frank Leboeuf wants to see more involvement in games from Paul Pogba, who has disappeared at times this season.

It was quite a contrast to the experience many will have had en route to the ground. After disembarking the train at Stratford Station, fans had to walk through the Westfield Centre — one of Europe’s biggest shopping malls — in which there was precious little social distancing as shoppers stocked up for Christmas, ate at restaurants and generally enjoyed being coated in the fake snow being sprinkled from the ceiling.

As it was, West Ham supporters — no away fans are allowed at this stage — greeted their team with loud cheers as they emerged for the prematch warm-up, while the cheer for Soucek’s goal was louder than you might expect from such a small group.

But as the away side bounced back from a woeful first-half performance, in small part due to the half-time introductions of substitutes Rashford and Bruno Fernandes, the mood changed and cheers were replaced by jeers.

In the 65th minutes, Fernandes and Pogba combined for Man United’s equaliser after a long ball from goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who started in place of the injured David De Gea. The clearance looked like it may have gone out of play, but Pogba had no idea about that when he sent Fernandes’s pass beyond Lukasz Fabianski with a curling shot from 25 yards.

Greenwood made it 2-1 with a clinical finish from an Alex Telles pass three minutes later, before Rashford made up for earlier misses by finishing off another slick move involving Pogba, Fernandes and Juan Mata. They were goals that more fans deserved to see, but by the time stadiums are back to full capacity, United might be predictable enough to develop some consistency.

“At the moment, we know there are things we need to improve on,” Solskjaer said “Some simple passes in the first half, but the second half that quality came back and all three goals were exceptional.”

United were awful and sublime in this game, and that cannot continue next week in crucial games against RB Leipzig and Manchester City. Saturday’s Manchester derby could be the last Old Trafford fixture without fans. The hope is that West Ham have put everyone else on the road back to how things used to be.