When Wycombe Wanderers fans turned their attention from giving their own team a standing ovation to sending referee Darren Bond down the tunnel with what might be politely termed a flea in his ear, it was confirmation that part of football’s lost soul had returned.
Bond, who has been leading a relatively quiet life officiating in empty stadiums, could not resist a smile as even he seemed to acknowledge at least some of the game’s normal service had been resumed.
If football has sometimes seemed a cold and soulless occupation in recent months it is because an irreplaceable part of that soul was missing. It returned in the shape of 1,000 Wycombe supporters at Adams Park.
And despite defeat and disappointment for home fans here, this was the night when some of the most important connections finally started to be re-established between clubs and their fanbases.
As the mist rolled in off the Chiltern Hills on a bitterly cold night in Buckinghamshire, the necessary new normal amid a global pandemic was replaced by good old-fashioned football in the raw, fuelled by the sort of crowd noise and verbal venting that confirmed months shouting at the television is no substitute for the real thing.
This was a carefully managed test event by Wycombe, the success of having 1,000 fans in attendance hopefully meaning double that number can watch the Championship game here against Coventry City on 12 December. It was night this club that specialises in defying the odds can be justifiably proud of.
There was pleasure in seeing vehicles snake on to the car parks, along with the sight of supporters walking through the industrial estate to the stadium, 285 days after they watched the Chairboys beat Tranmere 3-1 en route to a debut season in the Championship.
Wycombe’s landmark day, the play-off victory against Oxford United at Wembley in July, was played behind closed doors so there was a special atmosphere around this compact near 10,000-capacity stadium.
This was a night to celebrate the return of fans to football after that long absence but also for Wycombe’s supporters to acclaim their heroes and watch them in the Championship for the first time, a remarkable feat by manager Gareth Ainsworth and his team.
They filed into the stadium in staggered time slots over the course of an hour, old acquaintances being renewed even among the reduced numbers fortunate enough to receive the email granting them entry.
Ian Monk, a Wycombe supporter since 1964, told BBC Sport: “I’ve been following Wycombe since the amateur days.
“I only found out this morning that I was one of the lucky ones. Someone dropped out and I got an email saying I was in. It actually feels very emotional to be back here and to be going inside the ground.
“This is a special night, not only because we are allowed back to watch the team live but also because it’s our first game in the Championship.
“It’s been a long time. I travel all over the country home and away and the club have organised it very well. They have done superbly to get this game on with our supporters here in difficult circumstances.”
Ainsworth received a deserved standing ovation as he walked around the perimeter of the pitch before kick-off while the supporters received a tribute of their own on the official team-sheet, listed as the 12th man beneath the name of Jason McCarthy as “1,000 Season Ticket Holders”.
The best laid plans are never fool-proof, however, least of all for the owner of a black Honda who was asked to return to his car moments before kick-off, presumably just as they were savouring the moment they had waited months for. Those who sympathised, and judging by some ironic cheers plenty did not, were hoping it was a simple case of lights left on and that the big moment was not missed.
For a manager with a rock-star look, it was fitting that Ainsworth’s side came out to a huge roar and the deafening sound of The Cult’s ‘Fire Woman’.
Wycombe’s strict supporter protocols advised against hugs, high-fives or handshakes with those outside your bubble and signed off with “take care when singing, chanting or celebrating”.
This was put to the test within seconds as Wycombe’s Alex Samuel crumpled to the floor following a hefty aerial challenge – the voluble home support gathered in the Lords Stand taking care to inform referee Bond exactly what they thought of his decision to wave play on.
Bond was even ordered, at various points and in colourful terms, to visit a local opticians – not the sort of advice he will have missed in these behind-closed-doors months.
And when Nick Powell concluded a spell of Stoke pressure to head the visitors in front after 72 minutes, he took the opportunity to mark the return of supporters with a cupped-ear celebration that was not exactly well received by the disappointed Wycombe fans.
In that time-honoured scene proving football fans really were back, referee Bond left the pitch at the final whistle to chants of “cheat” along with some old-fashioned gestures of disapproval from the home support.
Ainsworth beamed broadly even in defeat, proud of the efforts of his Wycombe side and their fans as he said: “This was fantastic. It was great to see them back home and the players were fantastic as well.
“We won a throw-in in the first minute and they cheered like it was a goal. It was eight months of frustration, desire and need coming out in that moment.
“It was an emotional night because we’ve been away so long. There has been a promotion in there so it was fantastic to share this night even though we lost. It was an emotional moment for me walking around the pitch at the start.
“We showed we can compete in the Championship here and even though there were only 1,000 fans in they showed they are Championship fans.
“It was a joy to see supporters back here with us. They were outstanding before, during and after the game and we can’t wait to have more of them here with us.”
Wycombe may have lost, and stay in the Championship relegation places, so those 1,000 passionate supporters were left disappointed – but in many other ways they will feel it was just so good to be back.