World Snooker Championship to see fans return in pilot event at the Crucible

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Spectators will return to sport on Saturday when the World Snooker Championship gets under way with the Crucible to open its doors to fans once again.

The venue in Sheffield could be up to 33 per cent full on the first day of the tournament and the hope is that a capacity crowd of 980 people will attend next month’s final on May 3.

A lot depends on the results of the Government’s pilot events, which are being used to help England and sport out of lockdown.

“We are sending out a message to all other indoor sports, cinemas, theatres. The data that comes from this is going to be vital to getting to the land of milk and honey of normality.”

Hot Water Comedy Club in Liverpool was meant to host the first pilot event with spectators on Friday, but pulled out and Saturday’s opening session at the Crucible now has the job of taking sport’s first step towards normality again in the UK.

Snooker fans briefly returned to the theatre in July before a second wave of coronavirus cases in this country saw the sport back behind closed doors.

It will end on Saturday morning, but Martin Gould, who faces Yan Bingtao in the first session, admitted it will be strange after the 39-year-old was able to resurrect his love for the game this season eight months after he felt “ashamed and pathetic” to be struggling with his mental health.

“I’ve really enjoyed playing in front of nobody – it’s been like going down the club and having a game,” he said.

“We’ve been so used to not having anyone rustling sweet papers and packets of crisps and mobile phones going off, and I think it’s going to be quite weird having a crowd back in there again.

“It’s certainly worked for me – nice and quiet, no noises coming from anywhere. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It might take me a frame or two just to remember that the crowd is actually there.”

Snooker chiefs signed up for the pilot which will see a gradual increase in capacity subject to strict conditions, including the requirement that ticket-holders undergo pre and post-event coronavirus tests.

Defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan will face debutant Mark Joyce in the first round on Saturday and – a day later – Wembley will host supporters again for the first time in over a year.

While those in attendance will not specifically be supporters of either club, whoever wins to reach the showpiece event under the arch could feature in front of 21,000 spectators on May 15, which would include their own fans.

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said: “The players have done tremendously well to be so competitive (without fans). To have 4,000, it’s a start of getting people back into stadiums and we’ll look forward to seeing them there.”

The pilot events are part of the Government’s science-led Events Research Programme (ERP) which is working closely with local authorities and organisers to help get fans back in safely to sport.

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