NIC Wishart is as Carlton as they come.

He’s a member of the Carlton Cheersquad and a member of Carlton Pride.

He even met his now-fiancé in the Carlton Cheersquad. Unsurprisingly, Donnini’s on Lygon Street is their go-to.

Through his involvement with those two supporter groups, five Blues come under the banner of player sponsorship: Eddie Betts, Tom De Koning, Alison Downie, Luke Parks and Nicola Stevens.

So what was it like to have live AFL and AFLW action as well as a club coterie function last week?

To put it in his own words, “it was like chicken soup for the soul”.

For me, Thursday night started to feel a bit normal again.

It started to feel real when we were going for a drink at the pub beforehand and seeing it full of Carlton fans. Entering the ground, we were all of as sudden seeing faces we hadn’t seen for 18 months. The community that we get to experience through footy started to rear its head.

While it was only a practice match, we heard the crowd yelling “BALL!” again, we heard fans disagreeing with umpires and we heard people cheering after a goal.

We were having fun again, that’s what it was. Hearing the crowd again, let alone seeing it and being part of it, is what I missed.

While we weren’t playing for sheep stations, it meant a hell of a lot to us supporters for the sole reason that we were able to be there.

Towards the end of 2019, when the Teague Train started to get rolling, the last game we played in Melbourne was against the Saints at the MCG. That’s one of the last games I remember and even through there were 50,000 people there that day, it sounded like 70,000. It was giving me flashbacks to that.

There’s nothing like being at a game of footy. At the beginning of the restart last season, I was really happy for our interstate members that were able to go. For our Queensland fans and our fans over in WA, knowing that they got to go more often meant I was rapt for them — even if I had FOMO myself.

It also made me realise just how much I take for granted the privilege of being able to go to the footy every week.

It meant that a simple thing like a practice match took on so much more significance. The act of being able to go and be there in person is so much better than watching it on TV, that’s for sure.

To go on Thursday night after spending the last few months supporting our Game Changers in the AFLW competition really capped it off. That first game we had at Ikon Park in Round 1 was quite emotional, for lack of a better term.

We made a day of it, with the obligatory stop at Donnini’s which has become a tradition. The realisation that we hadn’t done this for 18 months was good for the soul.

To be back at the footy, to be back at our spiritual home of Ikon Park and to be in that environment once again. It’s not just the fans you sit with every week, but those acquaintances who you only know through the footy.

Some of them, you don’t even know their name, but you nod or wave hello to them. Seeing the smiles on their faces again… we don’t know what everyone has been through in the past 12-18 months and some have done it harder than others.

Particularly in our cheersquad, we’ve got some members who do it tough and are on disability pensions and things like that. For them, the footy is their one outlet where they can let go of whatever is going on in their everyday life. Knowing they’ve got that place after it’s been such a slog mentally for so many people is really important.

The week started off with a club function for coterie members and player sponsors, and those sort of events are my personal favourite.

To be in a room full of Carlton people again: what brings us together is our love of footy and our love for Carlton.

My fiancé and I, we’re always talking about Carlton, whether it’s amongst our friends, amongst our family or just between one another. Because of the nature of the past 12 months, it didn’t really feel like the AFL season was upon us until I was in that room and felt the energy around.

It wasn’t just the fans, but the coaches and players genuinely seemed up and about. To witness that first-hand makes me super pumped for the year ahead.