Pre-pandemic, a trip to Wembley had become an increasingly arduous, manufactured experience, devoid of some of the old magic: an obligatory pilgrimage, fuelled by the anticipation and possibility of what might lie ahead but soon tainted by watery lager, inflated prices, soulless surroundings and a nightmare journey home.
Indeed, strip away the FA Cup final element, and making a trip to the national stadium your first matchday experience in over a year would be rather like having your first post-lockdown pint in an airport Wetherspoons.
Except it wasn’t. Journeying to Wembley, it was clear this would be different.
“Is this your first game in a while?” asked one bystander of a fan draped in a Chelsea flag at Green Park Station.
A rhetorical question perhaps, given its blindingly obvious answer, but one which served as a reminder of the wider public interest, not only in the country’s most famous football match, but also in the success of a test event being played out on terrestrial television, with the potential to bring hope of a return to near-normality to millions.
Chelsea’s fans, regular visitors to these parts in recent years, had had to watch from the sofa last year as their side were beaten in an empty stadium. Leicester City’s had had to wait much, much longer, given it had been 52 years since their last FA Cup final.
Together, they made up the biggest crowd seen anywhere in the UK since the start of the pandemic 14 months ago; when Youri Tielemans’ 64th-minute winner hit the back of the net, the Leicester half of it might just have made the loudest noise heard in that period, too.
Even before kick-off, the Wembley announcer asked plenty of what might have been a rusty bunch, attempting to whip up a pantomime to-and-fro of boos and “I can’t hear yous”. But there was no need for such artificial cajoling, for the lucky few thousand were clearly intent on singing for the friends, family and strangers who would, in an ideal world, have been stood next to them, but instead were stuck watching at home. Together, they produced an atmosphere that would put to shame those created by crowds four times as large on numerous occasions at this ground.
They provided, too, a glimpse of what England can expect when they open their Euro 2020 campaign here against Croatia in four weeks’ time with a rousing rendition of the national anthem that instantly dispelled any fears that the home advantage which Gareth Southgate’s side hope to exploit might be diminished by a reduced crowd. His Royal Highness Prince William, who, in a meeting of worlds, had just been introduced to Jamie Vardy, stood on, impressed.
The overload of pandemic-era football has inspired many negative emotions - cynicism, disinterest, outright boredom - but the roar that greeted the teams’ emergence from the (shared) tunnel was instantly warming, and not only because it was accompanied by a row of giant flamethrowers.
Taking in the sights and sounds of a populated matchday was like pulling on an old jumper: the thumping of corrugated metal; the middle-aged men taking the break in play for Jonny Evans’ first-half injury as chance to make a dash for the toilet to relieve out-of-practice bladders; the polite applause from the Foxes faithful as N’Golo Kante’s name was read out; the supporters’ irrationality, exhibited by one chap sat near the press box, who repeatedly insisted the diminutive midfielder ought to “go away” as he “owed Leicester”.
There were, of course, signs everywhere that this was still not quite normal. Prince William stuck to the safety of the red carpet, not only as a matter of royal protocol, but one of social-distancing as he ran through his handshake-free presentations. Sanitised footballs were still stationed around the perimeter, balanced on cones in lieu of ballboys, though James Maddison took great joy in thumping every one of them into the crowd during a half-lap of honour.
Giant seat coverings adorned much of the upper tier, where you’d much rather see crowds, but even they brought a certain poignance, the Leicester fans’ going through rendition after rendition of ‘Vichai had a dream’ as a giant image of the late chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha - father of current chairman Aiyawatt - watched on from above.
Even VAR couldn’t spoil the party, with the decision to disallow Ben Chilwell’s late equaliser pleasingly prompt. It encapsulated perfectly the agony and ecstasy of fandom as the din from the east end of the stadium quickly gave way to a nervy collective silence, soon shattered by a brutal wave of noise from the west.
Under grey May skies, and with Boris Johnson’s rather ominous Friday night warning casting an even bigger cloud, this might not have quite represented the gateway to a summer of freedom carnival that some had been hoping for. But my god, it was good.