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    Normality strikes as Gareth Ainsworth applauds returning fans

    Normality strikes as Gareth Ainsworth is greeted with a round of applause at Adams Park as fans return to watch their side for the first time in eight months

    • Stoke City beat Wycombe Wanderers 0-1 at Adams Park on Wednesday night
    • Supporters were allowed back into Adams Park for the first time in eight months
    • Gareth Ainsworth did his lap of the pitch before the game to applaud the fans  

    Half an hour before kick-off the old rocker went for a walk. They clapped him, he clapped them back and for a charming moment, as Gareth Ainsworth did his lap of the pitch and beamed the biggest grin, it all felt a little more normal.

    More normal for him and more normal them, those fans of Wycombe Wanderers who counted down from various points in time to this day.

    Some, like Lynden Finch had waited more than half a century to see her club from a Tier Two town play a game in the second tier. She has been turning up since those days of the Sixties when they kicked about in the Isthmian League, five rungs below. ‘We weren’t quite so good then,’ she said. Yes, quite.

    Gareth Ainsworth did his lap of the pitch before the game to applaud the present fans 

    Supporters (above) were allowed back into Adams Park for the first time in eight months

    Supporters (above) were allowed back into Adams Park for the first time in eight months

    A few yards away stood another supporter, David Peaty. He’s 65 now, and you always remember your first – his was Tooting and Mitcham at home, at the old Loakes Park. ‘Wycombe in the Championship,’ he said. ‘Wonderful. It all feels a bit strange, to be honest. But it’s really very, very nice.’

    And that brings us to the other kind of strange, and to the other kind of countdown. To the countdown that started on February 22, when Wycombe beat Tranmere 3-1 in a League One fixture at this ground, Adams Park.

    That was their final game before Covid draped its dirty curtain over all the important things and all the trivialities as well. Tranmere are in League Two now; Wycombe are in the Championship, and the world as we knew it isn’t quite what it was.

    And that is why Ainsworth – the singer who manages and inspires this quirky, lovely club – had his smile, and why his followers had theirs. Because while football has been back for some time, it didn’t really return until Wednesday night, when a select few fans were shown to their seats again.

    The result may have gone in the favour of Stoke but fans were still ecstatic to be there

    Some waited almost a century to see their club from a Tier Two town play in the second tier

    Some waited almost a century to see their club from a Tier Two town play in the second tier

    For those supporting Wycombe, and who missed the crowning day in July when their club beat Oxford in virtual silence at Wembley to reach this division, a cold night against Stoke has never meant so much. Ditto for the fans at five other grounds around the country where up to 2,000 were being let in. The baby steps of progress.

    How the 1000 at this one loved it. When Alex Samuel hit a post on five minutes, they roared. When Josef Bursik, the Stoke keeper, held on to the ball a fraction too long, they roared some more. When the referee, Darren Bond, booked Samuel for a dive, they roared and called him all sorts. Real football had perished for a time; old habits survived the wait.

    But the details of the game always felt a little secondary, even at Wycombe, where the need for points is increasingly urgent. They played their way through a turgid, goalless first half; the second was lost to a Nick Powell header.

    Soon enough the Wycombe narrative will centre wholly on their survival prospects, and whether their stay in the Championship can be extended after 126 years in other leagues.

    Fans were heard roaring when Josef Bursik, Stoke keeper, held on to the ball a fraction too long

    Fans were heard roaring when Josef Bursik, Stoke keeper, held on to the ball a fraction too long

    When the referee, Darren Bond, booked Samuel for a dive, they roared and called him all sorts

    When the referee, Darren Bond, booked Samuel for a dive, they roared and called him all sorts

    But for now, for this one, it was always going to be about the immediate context. About the meaning of football to those who too often get taken for granted by the game, and those whose absence has never been felt so profoundly by their clubs.

    For David Peaty, the feeling upon waking up on Wednesday was ‘a bit like Christmas,’ he said. For Mike Seaward, a Canadian who only got the bug around five years ago, ‘getting ready to go to a game again felt like getting ready for a date’.

    For Linda who runs Linda’s Burger Van out on the gate, which took its first matchday cash since February, it was just ‘very, very welcome’. For the ballboys giving television interviews, it was a ‘dream’. For the club, and almost all those like it in desperate struggles to balance books, having fans here was a move in the direction they simply need to go.

    Different groups, different agendas, different struggles, and one common feeling, that was probably summed up best by Lynden Finch.

    ‘It has been a dreadful year and this is just a bit of normality,’ she said. ‘We all needed it.’

    MATCH FACTS 

    Stoke: Bursik, Collins, Chester, Batth, Fox, Cousins, Clucas, Powell, Brown, Campbell, Vokes.

    Subs: Lonergan, Lindsay, Ince, McClean, Smith, Shawcross, Oakley-Boothe, Verlinden, Tymon.

    Wycombe: Allsop, Grimmer, Jacobson, Stewart, Wheeler, Bloomfield, Knight, Horgan, Onyedinma, Samuel, McCarthy.

    Subs: Stockdale, Kashket, McCleary, Akinfenwa, Freeman, Parker, Mehmeti, Burley, Linton.

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