ON MARCH 7 last year, Barnsley lost 2-0 at home to Cardiff City which left them bottom of the Championship and seven points adrift of safety with nine games left.

They were booed off the pitch with then head coach Gerhard Struber saying his side played like a youth team and captain Alex Mowatt admitted they were bullied.

There were hand sanitisers dispersed around the ground in an early warning sign of the incoming coronavirus crisis which would stop supporters attending games for more than 14 months.

On Monday, 436 days and 62 behind-closed-doors games later, fans returned to their beloved stadium to watch the Reds play in a play-off semi-final against another Welsh club in Swansea City.

There were about 4,500 season ticket holders who had been successful in the ballot spread around the North Stand, East Stand and Pontefract Road End.

They got their first glimpse of head coach Valerien Ismael, who took over from Struber after the Reds had not won in seven games – their joint longest wait for a first win of a season since 1920.

They had also never seen in the flesh star players such as Daryl Dike, Carlton Morris, Dominik Frieser, Michal Helik and Callum Brittain.

Although the Reds lost 1-0, the reception for the players before and after the game, as well as the support during, was huge and the fans were praised by staff and coaches after the match.

Liam Dyson, season ticket holder and creator of fanzine West Stand Bogs, said: “At first, I was adamant that I wouldn’t go to the match because I have a young baby at home and I was worried about safety.

“But I entered the ballot because it was one of those games I wanted to be able to tell my kids about.

“Especially if the impossible happens and Barnsley go up, Monday night will be one of those ‘I was there’ moments.

“I was a bit late and didn’t get to the ground until about 8pm.

“It was incredibly eerie and surreal walking up to the ground 15 minutes before a game and there being no one else there.

“Once I got in, I thought it was organised really, really well and it felt incredibly safe and well-structured.

“Despite some moments of relative calm and silence, it was much noisier with a better atmosphere than I expected.

“I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it but I did and it was a really nice welcome back for those of us who were lucky enough to get a ticket. The result was disappointing but you could see why this team has been successful.

“At the end I was about to leave then I realised it was bigger than a normal full-time and it was right to say thank you to this team and the staff.

“They have brought some joy and hope to the town during what has been a bad time.”

Fiona Hall, a season ticket holder, was in the Pontefract Road End.

She said: “I’d been really busy prior to the game and wasn’t prepared for how emotional it might be.

“When we pulled up near the ground, it hit me.

“I brought some food but I didn’t get round to eating it for about half an hour because I was so absorbed.

“Jack Walton was the first player to come out and the noise was massive.

“The atmosphere was brilliant all night.

“I pretty much lost my voice.

“It felt different because I wasn’t in my usual seat and I couldn’t see my friends, but it was a great experience.

“It was good that everyone stayed and cheered the players off.

“I enjoyed the game and thought we were unlucky.

“I have left the ground early before but there was no chance of that on Monday.”

Ian Slack, who drove up from London for the game, said: “It was great.

“Getting into the ground was dead easy and I can’t give the staff enough credit for how friendly they were and how they treated us.

“It was very sunny and everyone was in a great mood.

“We saw people we know for the first time in more than a year so everyone was so excited.

“I didn’t really notice the gaps around me and it felt back to normal, if not better and louder.

“I didn’t see many people leaving once the final whistle went.

“Most of us stayed to applaud the team off and Valerien Ismael who we all wanted to thank for what he has done.

“It was great to see some of the players for the first time.

“We have joked before that we might never to see some of them in a Barnsley shirt.

“Every player deserved a big round of applause and we wanted to thank them.”

Carlo Van Der Watering, who hosts the Reds Report podcast, was not successful in the ballot but watched from home.

He said: “I was proud of the fans.

“They got behind the team from start to finish even when they made mistakes.

“I was more nervous watching it than any other game this season when there have been no fans. I was quite irritable to my wife and daughter.

“I was envious of the fans who were there but happy for them and they did the town proud.

“It was a momentous occasion because of the season we have had not just the 90 minutes on the pitch.

“It was like there was a fairytale being written, but just with the wrong ending.

“We have probably had one of our best ever seasons and I know everyone who went felt blessed to witness that team, regardless of the result.

“It was great to see fans clapping and encouraging rather than yellow and booing at mistakes. Hopefully that continues when we all return.”