A view of the pitch at an empty Villa Park

Why Saturday's game was the strangest one yet

There’s nothing quite like the start of a new Premier League season - a day that fans of all 20 clubs approach full of hope. We’ve got new signings, new kits, new clubs to see, even new fantasy teams!

Normally, the first day of the season is one to circle on the calendar as you indulge yourself with a mini-football feast. In every Premier League campaign to date, matchday one has meant renewing acquittances with an old friend we haven’t seen in a few months. Yet, 2020/21 is a little different.

As the top flight whirred back into life on Saturday, two of its sides went toe to toe in a friendly encounter at Villa Park, and I was lucky to be one of the very few admitted into the ground. To say it was an odd experience is putting it mildly.

The word ‘unique’ was often used to describe games after Project Restart last season, and face masks, temperature checks and empty stands certainly were far from the norm. But 92 fixtures were played in that period during June and July and, in truth, the 'uniqueness’ of the situation began to fade very quickly.

Highlights: Aston Villa 1 United 0Video

I attended one of United’s games in the latter part of 2019/20, also at Villa Park, when the Reds won 3-0 thanks to goals from Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Paul Pogba.

As weird an experience as that July night was, it’s nothing compared to Saturday’s match. At least last season, there were other journalists present, Villa staff members were buzzing around and there was an air of ‘business as usual’ for the majority inside the ground.

This weekend, excluding broadcasters from both clubs, I was the only journalist inside the famous, old stadium. It was bizarre! When I first got there, I stood for a few seconds in the press box and looked around. This is strange.

It was like a nonsensical dream. When I wake up tomorrow morning, I’ll have a chuckle about the impracticalities of all this.
Even from a working perspective, Saturday was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. A matchday is normally the most stressful part of the job, as we try and publish content as close to the full-time whistle as possible, while keeping supporters updated with all the major events via our Official App.

You know that meme of the cat typing on the laptop? Well, that’s pretty much the media department during a game.

But not on Saturday. With the match kicking off at 2pm and ending just before 4pm, the deadline for submitting my match report was actually not until 10pm. That’s more than six hours after the game ended! So, at an eerily empty 40,000+ seater-stadium, I just sat back, watched the match and made notes of the key incidents. I didn’t even begin to write the report until the game’s conclusion.

The lack of available TV screens also contributed to this decision. Had I missed something while typing, I wouldn't have had the trusted replays to let me know what had transpired.
Even the match itself was a tad unusual. In many ways, it had all the characteristics of a significant and serious clash. Music blared around the stadium pre-match, the teams were announced over the tannoy, while the massive screens showed the sort of build-up that would accompany a regular league game.

At times the match had a real ferocity and intensity to it. For a start, there were two yellow cards - for Matty Cash and Jesse Lingard - the referee received the odd remark for a decision and there was even a coming together between two players when Douglas Luiz took offence to a Harry Maguire challenge. The substitutions also didn’t indicate a meaningless game, and Villa boss Dean Smith only made three across the 90 minutes.

Yet, in the same breath, it just clearly wasn’t an all-action clash. Players tended to quickly apologise for fouls and I distinctly heard Jack Grealish shout ‘Are you ok, DJ’, when Daniel James was fouled following Cash’s booking. Meanwhile, with both sides evidently not at 100 per cent match fitness yet, the pace of proceedings really waned in the second half.

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Despite all this, there were a few significant milestones on Saturday, most notably a first game for Donny van de Beek. The midfielder, who has only trained with his new team-mates for a few days - gave a solid performance for the Reds, while Dean Henderson, returning from his loan move at Sheffield United, similarly impressed.

It was also a day to remember for Anthony Elanga. I was in attendance at Salford City on Wednesday, as the young Swede put in a superb showing in our Under-21s' 6-0 win, and the Villa Park trip was the ideal opportunity to hand the winger a maiden senior appearance.

As for Ethan Galbraith and Teden Mengi, both of whom have previously played a competitive match in Ole’s first team, the young duo were given another opportunity to show the boss exactly what they can do.

Chuck in a few debuts for the opposition, and the first outing for our much-talked-about new third kit, and amid the relative hush at Villa Park there was actually quite a lot to take in.

Well, it wasn’t exactly silent, with 22 footballers shouting instructions and support across the pitch to one another. You really could hear every word of what was being said, in fact, had I closed my eyes I probably could have recognised which player was speaking based purely on their accents.

I even made out one clear instruction from Ole ahead of a corner - don’t worry boss, I’ll keep that one between us!

With the ground so void of people, I could also easily pick out MUTV commentators Stewart Gardener and Ben Thornley in the opposite stand.

It was just strange. Weird. Unusual. Odd… whatever word you want! And while it was such an amazing thing to experience, it will never compare with the roar of an excited crowd, the booing of a bad tackle or the songs and chants we’re all so used to.

Yes, it was an other-worldly afternoon, but I’d rather stick with what I know, thanks.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.

The new season is here! Our 2020/21 home, away and third kits are available now from United Direct.

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