REID: Home is where the heart is in Halifax

HFX relish long-anticipated return to Wanderers Grounds: ‘The empty stadiums, it’s just not the same’

After waiting 663 days for their next home match at Wanderers Grounds, Monday’s 2-1 win over Atlético Ottawa felt like a fever dream for Halifax players, coaches and supporters alike.

A civic holiday long weekend, Natal Day in Nova Scotia, the scene was set for a perfect afternoon on the East Coast — that is until the rain started some four hours before kickoff.

What was expected to be an accumulative 1mm of precipitation quickly became 30mm by day’s end and yet 2,500 strong braved the elements to see the Wanderers back where they belong for the first time since October 9, 2019, a display of support Head Coach Stephen Hart did not take for granted.

“Love is love, isn’t it?” said Hart post-match of the waves of fans who came out despite the conditions on Monday. “Really and truly, it was great to hear, it was great to see, it was great to smell, it had a feel of football you know. The empty stadiums, it’s just not the same.”

The roar of ‘The Kitchen’, the supporters section situated behind the goal at the East end of the stadium, could be heard loud and clear on both occasions which the home side scored, not only by those in attendance but from Haligonians sheltered from the downpour in their condos several blocks away as the smell of flares amid the goal celebrations drifted by the press box through the heavy first-half rain.

For Hart and the rest of his staff, it was a ceremonious welcome back to a place already near and dear to them. For squad members like João Morelli who’ve eagerly awaited their first visit to the Grounds since joining the club, it was a long overdue introduction to a venue they’d heard so much about.

“It’s incredible, my first time here… everybody’s been talking about it since I got here last year,” Morelli told reporters after his side’s home victory on Monday. “Finally we’re back home, even if they’re not allowed to fill up the house, just half the capacity it’s incredible, the atmosphere is crazy and the fans are crazy.”

Morelli thrived on the energy of the home support perhaps more than any other player, scoring both Wanderers goals in the match, walking off in the dying moments to a well deserved ovation from the fans.

As the Brazilian dazzled on the pitch with a pair of first-time finishes for his brace, a key figure in the Halifax backline watched on under the warmth of multiple layers as his teammates fought to hold onto all three points against Atlético.

Still recovering from an injury suffered in the second match of the season during ‘The Kickoff’, Peter Schaale might not have had the vantage point he envisioned upon his return home on Monday, but the emotions of the occasion weren’t lost on the German defender.

“The one thing that stood out to me most is just that huge feeling of gratitude towards our supporters,” Schaale said Thursday after training. “Coming in those conditions and supporting us like they always did just felt amazing.”

As one of the senior players in the squad, now in his third year as a Wanderer, the 25-year-old centre back saw the win over Ottawa as the start of his group’s efforts to truly make their home field an advantage once again in 2021.

“We know we have to make this our fortress again. Monday was the first step in the right direction, now we have to continue to put in the work in practice and perform again on Saturday to get another result before we hit the road for a couple of away games.”

Monday served not only as proof of the Halifax supporters loyalty to the club but also as a reminder of the minor details that make matchdays so memorable for those who had the pleasure of being in attendance.

While Wanderers fans will likely have little concern regarding the weekend forecast given their previous turnout, Hart hopes mother nature is a little kinder to the Halifax faithful in their second home contest.

“They have sacrificed just as much as the players… and we’re thankful for it and we hope we can get some better weather for the next game.”

As ‘From Aways’ — a blog dedicated to the Wanderers — suggested via social media on Tuesday, the first home match in nearly two years had the feeling of an ‘I was there when’ moment, one that would become part of the club’s mythology over time.

With just a five day wait between games at Wanderers Grounds this time around, Halifax quickly get another opportunity to write the next chapter in the club’s history on Saturday.