As the Aston Villa and Sheffield United players walked (separately) on to a pristine looking Villa Park pitch, it was easy to think that the 100 days of waiting were over, and that our national sport had returned.
While that is undoubtedly true, football won’t really be back for a while yet.
The players were not greeted by the usual roar of the Villa fans, instead it was so quiet that the peace was disturbed when Times chief sports writer, Matt Dickinson’s mobile phone started to ring. “I quickly turned it to silent because the ringtone felt so intrusive,” Dickinson said.
Three hundred people were inside Villa Park to watch this most surreal of occasions; even in Villa’s relegation season of 2015-16, attendances didn’t get that bad.
For the rest of us, watching from the comfort of our sitting rooms, the match was a predictably sterile affair. Apart from the reassuring return of VAR controversy in the 43rd minute, as Oliver Norwood’s free-kick appeared to be carried over the line by Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland, only for the technology to fail.
On the Sky Sports Main Event channel, they played fake crowd noise into the game’s audio to give some idea of realism, and it worked as well as could be expected, but we can’t pretend this really filled the massive void left by an empty ground.
I did end up wondering had Villa gone behind, whether or not they would have played the sound of 40,000 grumbling Brummies.
For so many people the actual watching of the game is just part of the football experience. Walking to the ground, having a pre-game pint with your friends, finding your seat, moaning about the referee, and complaining about your side’s tactics are all vital parts of match-day. Until crowds are allowed back, that won’t be possible. Each person has their own individual rituals; from parking in the same space to stopping at your lucky burger van.
Tomorrow we will see 15 games take place across the UK as the Championship joins the Premier League in returning.
But for football to really be back, 15 games on a Saturday isn’t enough. We need hundreds up and down the UK. Saturday, 3pm, during the football season is a special moment for football fans across the country. The feeling is shared from Manchester United FC to Radford FC, and everywhere in between. Games are kicking off simultaneously. Each match with its own loyal fans, watching on, and each contest provides a unique storyline. Community is not a word often associated with football fans, but every Saturday at 3pm it is for once appropriate as everyone comes together and rallies behind their team.
Each game is so different, but so similar. You can bet that at every match in the UK, the hapless officials will be abused by fans and coaching staff, people will be eating overpriced burgers, a purple-faced manager will be bellowing orders at his players and some will be playing well while others are having a nightmare. That is the beauty of football.
When the game finishes and you get in your car to go home, the first thing you do is turn on the radio and hear the words that fill so many people with joy, “It’s five o’clock, and time for Sports Report.” You are then taken on a journey around the country via the medium of football results; from the Scottish Second Division to the National League, from Cove Rangers to Torquay United.
In normal times, football is not just the national sport, it is a national obsession. And until we can return to grounds up and down the country and enjoy football at its many levels, it can’t be.
By Alex Brinton