I had planned to write this column reflecting on my first visit to Old Trafford in more than nine months.
Unrealistically – and, in hindsight, perhaps naively – I, like many others, had hoped Manchester United’s home Premier League clash with arch-rivals Leeds United on Sunday (December 20) would have been played in front of a crowd, albeit only a shade over 2.6 per cent of the ground’s capacity.
The Government had opened the possibility when it announced in November supporters would be partially allowed back (I would say welcomed, but football fans in Britain are still perceived as hooligans by the powers-that-be) depending on which tier the surrounding area fell into.
It just so happened that Manchester United’s first attempt at bringing fans through the turnstiles, which have been closed for nearly 300 days, would have been the Leeds game.
The club, which had sent out a survey to all season ticket holders a few weeks prior asking them their views on returning, had plans in place to allow 2,000 into the match, providing Manchester was moved down from tier three to two, which plenty in the local area had called for.
Alas, to use a favoured phrase of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it was not possible as the Government kept Manchester in what was then the top tier of COVID-19 restrictions.
Fans of clubs in other parts of the country across the professional leagues had already made their long-awaited return before the gates were swiftly slammed shut amid a rise in coronavirus cases in large parts of the nation.
But now large swathes of us are facing the likelihood of not being able to see our teams in person for the majority of the remainder of the season, despite all the positive noises surrounding a vaccine.
The main reason for this is undoubtedly perception. Irrespective of the fact clubs all over the pyramid have being working tirelessly to make their respective stadiums as COVID-19 secure as possible, and many would feel safer inside Pride Park than Primark, the Government cannot be seen to be relaxing certain restrictions while simultaneously tightening others.
Yet Johnson’s hapless strategy has allowed people in other sectors, such as entertainment, back inside indoor venues, where the risk of spreading the virus is considerably higher than outdoors.
In October, crowds flocked to the show “An Audience with Arsène Wenger”, held at the London Palladium. The irony was not lost on many that they could go and watch a football manager at an indoor venue but not see their own coach ply their trade from their own seat inside the stadium, while wearing a mask and following all the other necessary protocols.
There have been plenty of other infuriating discrepancies for football supporters. Take West Ham’s match with Manchester City that same month, which people could watch at an indoor cinema a stone’s throw from the London Stadium but were not permitted to attend, socially distanced, in the ground itself.
While it is fair to suggest football matches can be a logistical nightmare – pandemic or no pandemic – it is equally fair to highlight the inconsistencies that have emanated from the Government’s decisions on fans at sports events during the COVID-19 crisis.
Of course, not everyone is as aggrieved about the lack of supporters at football matches.
Even some of the most avid match-going fans among Manchester United’s support, some of whom occupy seats not too far from mine, have no intention of going back until some semblance of normality has been restored.
Not necessarily for fear of catching a virus that has killed more than 67,000 people in Britain, but because the matchday experience will be considerably diminished.
A common quote from match-going supporters is that the 90 minutes often gets in the way of a good day. Part and parcel for some – not all – is the pre-match booze-up, followed by a hearty and hefty singsong during the game and the post-match debrief at the pub, all of which can be enjoyed irrespective of the result.
Practically all the above is impossible during the current situation.
Both those of us still willing to attend while adhering to all the rules and regulations and those who have vocalised their intention to stay away until 76,000 are inside Old Trafford can all agree on one thing – that the way the Government has treated football fans is symptomatic of a wider contempt it has for the match-going supporter.
What has also become evident is the sneering attitude towards people who have campaigned and kicked up a fuss about the way their return has been handled.
I have seen plenty question why they are so bothered about not being able to enjoy their once, twice, sometimes thrice-a-week hobby.
The detractors say there are much more important things to deal with during a pandemic and while no-one would argue attending a football match is worth risking someone’s life, equally it is all relative.
We can both miss going to the game and understand the consequences of the crisis the country has been in for the best part of a calendar year.
We can campaign for our return while being wary of the rise in infections, particularly since a new variant of COVID-19 was discovered in certain regions in England.
Unfortunately, going back to the scenes of the last Manchester United match at Old Trafford played in front of a crowd – the 2-0 victory over Manchester City on March 8 – is a long way off, but I for one cannot wait.