Do not get me wrong, I cannot wait for the day when fans are safely allowed back into grounds. Watching Harrogate Town play Forest Green Rovers in front of just over 500 in December was uplifting.
Without supporters, much of this season’s football has been unsatisfyingly flat. Add the fatigue of a crammed fixture list, and there has been a lot of dross lately.
The special moments have missed them just as much. Games I have been to over the past year which were crying out for supporters included both Rotherham United’s wins over Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town beating West Bromwich Albion to avoid relegation last season, Hull City winning a League Cup penalty shoot-out at Elland Road, Wednesday’s first home win of 2020-21 in November, Valerien Ismael leading Barnsley to a first victory anywhere in his opening game, Doncaster Rovers thrashing then-League One leaders Ipswich Town 4-1 and Harrogate winning promotion to the Football League at an empty Wembley.
Being at York City’s new stadium with fans trapped in their living rooms was not right, and watching Leeds United players pop Champagne corks in an empty ground after celebrating promotion with a 4-0 exhibition against Charlton felt as wrong as the crowds outside. Sheffield United never got a richly-deserved end-of-season lap of honour.
Sometimes the best thing about behind closed doors for those of us lucky enough to be allowed in is not watching but listening.
However bad the London Stadium is for watching football in, West Ham United’s home has great acoustics. Not that everyone needs them – I spent last season’s final Premier League match on the opposite side of the ground to the dugouts, but could still hear every word as Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder and Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl cajoled players.
I think teams are noisier now than at the start of the pandemic, and that can only be a good thing.
You often hear it said there are few leaders in modern football and I was struck in the second match I covered after the restart how quiet relegation-threatened Hull City were at home to Charlton, the only real exception being substitute Josh Magennis. He was loud too in the 8-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic a month later, albeit his passion was misdirected, but you could hear George Honeyman was a real leader, and it is no surprise both have been important in this season’s rebuild.
Leeds’s Luke Ayling is another, his voice never more noticeable than at West Brom in December as he persistently insisted standards remain high during a 5-0 win.
Listening to Marcelo Bielsa, always demanding in his tone yet quaintly polite in his English, tinkering with his formation for a good 10 minutes against Barnsley until he got it just as he wanted it was an education.
The excellent defensive organisation Sheffield United showed at Chelsea in Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final owed much to Aaron Ramsdale constantly herding his players.
The previous day, listening to Neil Warnock had been more entertaining than watching Middlesbrough, lambasting the officials of course, but also urging players on, nudging them around and chiding them when necessary.
If it has brought players out of their shells, at least something good will have come from this soulless football. The end cannot come soon enough, though.
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