The smell of freshly mowed and watered grass hung in the air. Chants rang out hours before kick-off as boisterous fans poured into the stadium. There was an air of anticipation at the Sree Kanteerava stadium as Bengaluru FC prepared to play at home for the first time in two years in the 2022- 23 Indian Super League. As Sunil Chhetri led his team out under a clear dark sky, The Fortress let out a roar which had been suppressed for 950 agonising days. Football was finally back.

The two years away from their loyal fans had taken a toll on Bengaluru. They finished outside the playoff contention in both the seasons and rarely looked to be title contenders, a feeling not many in the city have felt over the past decade.

It was therefore poetic that after being frustrated by a resolute NorthEast United side, Bengaluru scored late into the match feeding on the energy of the 19,000 odd fans at the Kanteerava to script a winning return home.

“This is what we live for. The whole BFC story is not complete without the both of us and that’s what’s going to happen in the match. Like we always say, we’ll bring the party, you bring the match,” Bengaluru FC fan Rakesh H told before kickoff.

“If it wasn’t for BFC, I don’t think I would have been comfortable going back into a crowded space. Because it’s BFC, I feel that somehow the pandemic won’t trouble us anymore. I’m super super excited to see everyone. It’s not just about the players on the pitch because there’s only so much excitement you can feel watching them on the TV. Bengaluru FC is home so I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them and building that relationship again,” said Akanksha Singh, another loyal fan who has backed The Blues since their conception a decade ago.

For many like Akanksha, Bengaluru FC being back at home signalled a return to normalcy. It meant meeting friends after weeks and months. It meant not dreading the pandemic and, yet at the same time, mourning those who succumbed to the disease.

“It was isolating and lonely. Put aside the results, whenever we scored there was always someone to turn to and celebrate with at the stadium whether it’s a known face or an unknown face. Watching it at home felt so isolating and unnerving. Sport is all about the people, so that’s what I am looking forward to,” Akanksha said.

“We’ve all been together for nine-ten years now. For a lot of us, this is the only friend circle we have. And during Covid, we have lost some so it’s going to be tough to fill that space without them. It’s going to be an emotional thing because this is something we have taken for granted. You come to the fortress, meet your people, have a great time. We call it family nights.

“It is that emotion which has bound us always. You come, have a great time and go back to your lives. So that joy of seeing your loved ones, who you see every other week, brings a special feeling to be back where you belong but it’s also a time to remember the ones who are not there anymore,” Rakesh said.

For the first match of the season, Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson opted for three defenders at the back with Prabir Das and Naorem Roshan Singh operating as wing backs while Chhetri tucked in behind the strike pairing of Roy Krishna and Sivasakthi Narayanan.

Despite being the underdogs and playing at the home of a team which boasts an impressive home record, NorthEast United were not ones to cower. Romain Philippoteaux was a lively presence in the heart of the NEUFC midfield and young Jithin MS made life difficult for Prabir Das on the left.

But it was Bengaluru FC who had the first big chance of the match after the impressive Roshan Singh shimmied his way into the box and put the ball on a plate for Sivashakti only for the youngster’s side-footed shot to fly just past the upright. Bengaluru’s Durand Cup find had the ball in the back of the net minutes later but was ruled out for an offside.

At the other end, Jithin had two good chances to draw first blood for the away side. Prabir Das failed to deal with a long ball in the 18th minute, allowing Jithin to sprint towards goal. The 24-year-old looked set to curl one past Gurpreet but ended up dragging his shot wide. The Kerala-born striker had two more chances closer to half-time but squandered them as the first half ended 0-0.

With neither side able to break the deadlock, Grayson added Javi Hernandez, Jayesh Rane and Udanta Singh after the hour mark and switched to a conventional 4-4-2 to force a goal. The wait finally ended in the 86th minute after Alan Costa rose highest to head in Hernandez’s corner to send the Benagluru FC faithful into delirium.

As if making up for the last two years, the footballing Gods had another twist in the tale late on. Ion Gratza scored what he and the pocket of NEUFC fans thought was a deserved equaliser in the 91st minute only for the linesman ruling it out with a contentious late offside call. An incensed NEUFC coach Marco Balbul charged towards the linesman to protest and was promptly sent off.

A massive roar went around the Kanteerava when referee Rahul Gupta whistled for the end of the match. No artificial fan sounds or fans cheering virtually this time. This was pure emotion one can only feel in person. The Blues have scored many a late winner over the years but none felt as special as Costa’s on Saturday.

The goal, Grayson said, was all thanks to the fans.

“It was brilliant. You could sense the atmosphere building from a long time before kickoff. They got behind us. We wanted to get the early goal and get the crowd going but they stayed with us with the noise and everything with about 10 minutes to go, they lifted the players when we couldn’t find a way of getting through. There was some up and down with the disallowed goal but it was a geat celebration towards the end. Two odd years of supporters not being inside the ground, nights like tonight are for them,” he said.

What a night it was, indeed.