Sheffield Utd game will be emotional for match-goers
Watching United play a behind-closed-doors match at an unfamiliar away ground, in some distant part of the country, is one thing. But seeing the Reds play at an empty Old Trafford? It's going to be mind-bendingly strange.
Yet that's what thousands of match-going fans will be experiencing on Wednesday, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team takes on Sheffield United, in our first home game since the season's resumption.
It's great to have United back – in whatever form. While watching other behind-closed-doors games on TV did not grab me at all, our game with Tottenham did. I was quickly engrossed, despite the weirdness, because it's United. Because I care. I'm sure most of you reading felt just the same.
But the thought of United playing at OT stimulates more emotions. Different emotions.
I go to the stadium hundreds of days each year, for work. I've attended the majority of United's matches there since 2003, when I was 16. I'm fortunate to have been to loads of away games, but home matches are the bread and butter. Missing one feels like missing mass did as a youngster. However justifiable the reason, it's like you're disobeying some universal law.
A United home match means excitement; thousands of people milling around the ground from very early on in the day.
Then there's all the rituals: meeting mates for a pre-game pint, soaking the beer up with a chip barm or whatever profoundly unhealthy 'treat' takes your fancy. Chatting to the familiar faces in your part of the stadium. Looking around and seeing all forms of life, all forms of humanity. That's before we've even got to the thrill of seeing the team you love take to the field and play the game that nourishes us.
So, while the thought of United playing again comforted me last Friday, I can't deny there's a feeling of sadness that I won't be able to see them play Sheffield United, despite my season ticket. Despite the fact I live just a mile and a half from the ground.
But positivity is undoubtedly the order of the day in our current situation. A football match without fans at Old Trafford hopefully means that we're closer to a game with fans.
And it helps that this match is so important for our top-four hopes. Chelsea's win at Aston Villa on Sunday, and our draw at Tottenham, means we've five points to make up. Thankfully, Frank Lampard's side still have to face Manchester City, Sheffield United, Liverpool and Wolves, so you'd hope they will drop points sometime soon. Of course, the Blades are in the hunt too, which adds an extra frisson of anticipation. They've not won either of their two games since the restart, and Chris Wilder's men are not known for taking too many backward steps in succession.
The sides played out a whirlwind high-scoring draw in Yorkshire last November.
Then there's November's meeting at Bramall Lane to consider. If Wednesday's game is in any way similar, watching at home might be enough of a rollercoaster.
I had the pleasure of being in the away end for that 3-3 draw and I can honestly say it was one of the most manic, breathless matches I’ve ever endured. It's sad there will be no cross-Pennine crackle to the occasion off the pitch this time. No ‘Greasy Chip Butty’ song from the Blades faithful. Those intangible things clearly have such an effect on football games – as the post-COVID decrease in home, wins, especially in the German Bundesliga, proves.
The average football fan might struggle to name too many of their players – though eagle-eyed Reds will remember former Academy hopeful Oliver Norwood – but that only adds to the Steel City side’s mystique. As does their progressive style, which has famously embraced overlapping centre-backs. The red half of Sheffield are right (or 'reyt') in the mix at the top end of the top flight, in their first campaign in this division since 2006/07. Hats off – that's incredible.
Perhaps more than any other behind-closed-doors game (knockout cup games excepted), this is the one I’m looking forward to most. Simply because I’ve absolutely no idea what to expect. The Blades battered us for the first hour at Bramall Lane in November, but then we overwhelmed them with a seven-minute, three-goal salvo that summed up the phrase ‘pure United’. Then Oli McBurnie’s late, hugely contestable equaliser broke my heart all over again.
Do I want more of that kind of emotional bedlam? I’m not totally sure. Do I wish I could be at Old Trafford? Absolutely. Will I be tuning in? Of course. It's the closest we can get to United. And that has to be enough right now.