Sunday April 25 2021 brought the first League Cup Final played during any form of Covid lockdown in England. The 2020 final had been the last major final played in the country before the pandemic led to various lockdowns and then the continuation of football without fans.
Some football clubs, including Tottenham, had been allowed to have a limited number of supporters at their home games during the early stages of the 2020-21 Premier League season, but Manchester City had not as they were in a regional tier that prevented crowds. So, for many of us, the last physical game we attended was the 2020 League Cup final (some City fans did of course attend the 1-0 FA Cup victory at Sheffield Wednesday on March 4 and the Old Trafford derby of March 8).
In the period between our last ‘live’ match and the 2021 League Cup final we had to sit at home watching City’s games played in empty stadia or, occasionally, at grounds with a small number of fans in but never with any ordinary City fans in. Former City star Mike Summerbee, the club’s ambassador, would often be seen, masked-up, at games when TV camera crews recognised him and it was always nice to know there was at least one person steeped in MCFC history there.
When the announcement came that the delayed League Cup Final (it was postponed until April in the hope that fans could attend) was to have up to 8,000 fans at Wembley there were then several dilemmas for fans. This was to be a test event and almost 2,000 tickets were to be issued to each competing club, which fans would have to pay for, and 4,000 would be given away to residents around Wembley and some NHS staff.
Many fans felt it was unfair that Wembley residents would be given tickets (each could apply to bring a guest too) while fans paid and there were the usual concerns about balance of support – would the fact that tickets were to be given to local residents benefit Spurs for example?
Most fans had no issue with NHS staff being given tickets with some Blues suggesting that NHS staff (and other key workers) who were season ticket holders of the two clubs should be offered the tickets. Lots of other suggestions were made plus, of course, some fans felt it would only be appropriate to attend a major game like this when ALL fans would be allowed back, though that still seemed some way off in April 2021.
To attend the final Manchester City used their loyalty points system and cup scheme as usual but then there was an added layer where fans had to live in certain postcodes: M, SK, BL, OL, WA, WN, PR, FY, BB, LA, CH, CW, BD, HD and HX and Greater London. In addition we had to have covid tests in the build-up to the final, including a lateral flow test that had to be performed at a test centre after 1.30pm on the Saturday before Sunday’s final.
This was difficult for many to arrange as, for example, some of the councils within the postcodes allowed did not have test sites available at weekend. Some booked to have tests close to Wembley, which caused some logistical issues on cup final day, and others had to travel in to Manchester on the Saturday. Inevitably, some did not get negative tests back in time and missed out.
Those lucky enough to get hold of tickets also had to state their method of travel with a limited number of car parking spaces meaning that option simply was not available for some fans. Specific coach and train travel was set up but the costs were prohibitive for some. Others pointed out their concern that once the trains arrived at Euston (or Watford) there would still be a need to travel to the stadium itself. To some this negated the need for travel on specific trains or coaches, but of course the conditions had been imposed by the Government and footballing authorities, not by the competing clubs.
At the stadium on match day the surrounding area seemed full of shoppers trying to pick up a bargain at the retail store but fans seemed few and far between. The photo above (Wembley Way looking towards the stadium) was taken about one hour before kick off. This would normally be packed at this time.
Close to the stadium the Wembley Way ramps that used to carry people up to the stadium have been demolished and a series of steps have been erected instead. Fans had to show their lateral flow test results, tickets, and photographic ID before being allowed up the steps to the stadium. They had to queue at these checkpoints and then, once they’d been allowed through they could make their way up to the stadium turnstiles. They were discouraged from waiting outside the stadium and were encouraged to go to the turnstile.
In previous years drinks had been allowed into the stadium if they were in plastic bottles and the lids were removed. This year no drinks, not even water, were allowed in the stadium, but staff did allow fans to carry in plastic bottles (without lids) as there were water fountains inside (typically positioned near the disabled toilets) and these could be filled up there. This is well worth remembering if you need to have drinks for medical purposes but do not want to pay Wembley’s expensive prices.
In the stadium bars and catering outlets were open as usual and while there was a considerably smaller number of fans within the concourse area, social distancing was not particularly in evidence. Having said that all fans had been tested but supporters were unclear whether Wembley staff, security, stewards and so on had been tested.
In the bowl of the stadium all fans had been positioned in the same stand plus the corners. This was the stand containing the Royal Box and directly opposite the TV cameras. The cynic would suggest that this demonstrated, as always, that some think the TV spectacle is more important than those in the stadium. Surely congestion in the toilets and other areas could have been eased had fans been spaced out in a wider area, or even if they’d have chosen blocks around the stadium with perhaps Spurs fans on one side or end and City in the opposite stand? If it’s pure safety then that would be the logical thing to do.
In the seats we were positioned predominantly in alternate seats with the row behind and in front of us following a pattern which was supposed to mean that there would be no one directly in front or behind of you. As some fans were in groups/families who had travelled together they sometimes moved next to others in their group on the same row – officially we were told that wasn’t allowed but inevitably it happened (we all wanted to be next to the people we’d gone to the game with and didn’t want the seat gap) and no one tried to stop it.
During the game stewards regularly reminded fans that they had to wear face masks throughout – from the moment we had shown our test results and tickets through to leaving the stadium after the presentations we had to be masked up. Of course, when eating or drinking masks were lowered.
Throughout our time in the bowl of the stadium fans would be moving along the rows to their places, and so social distancing was not possible at those times.
After the game we were free to leave en masse if we wanted. As City won the cup most City fans stayed for the presentations and left at various points during the celebrations, meaning there wasn’t a crush to get out. Spurs fans seemed more keen to leave of course, but whether this caused any issues I do not know. Presumably, social distancing is impossible to manage when an entire section chooses to leave at the same time.
If you were one of the lucky ones who had managed to get a car parking space it was refreshing to travel away from Wembley without the huge traffic jams we normally experience. There were roadworks and a few problems on the motorway but nothing like normal.
So, that was the general experience of attending as a Manchester City fan at the first game we’ve been allowed to attend as City fans in over a year. It’s not the story of the game but I hope it gives an idea as to how the crowd management happened.