Why it was Manchester Reunited on Sunday
Attending matches during the extended period without supporters was a pretty lonely and soulless experience.
While appreciating I was one of the fortunate ones who could still sometimes witness live football, to say it wasn't the same is a huge understatement.
The clearest example came in our wonderful win at Newcastle United last season. When the Magpies opened the scoring, it wasn't clear the ball had entered the net from the angle where I was sat, alone outside an executive box. There was no real reaction at all, even from the other media scattered in the same stand. It was just so surreal as St James' Park would normally have been raucous; instead there had been more noise at my son's Under-9s game that morning when a goal was celebrated.
This was the Premier League but not as we know it.
Hopefully, those days are gone for good.
Arriving at Pride Park this weekend and walking to the ground, it instantly felt different.
I soon passed what I presumed to be a father and son both wearing United shirts and it was a joyous moment. Away fans were back, as was a sense of solidarity.
Some kind of normality returned. A guy was selling scarves by the Brian Clough and Peter Taylor statue.
There was a distinct whiff of hotdogs and hamburgers.
When inside the ground, we'd been allocated a significant space – opposite the section of travelling supporters, with the Rams fans to our right.
It was uplifting to see some of the many good men and women who work for United, people who have become friends yet I haven't seen some of them in what feels like ages. I am sure many employees feel the same – Zoom calls for your direct team members are one thing, but the lengthy period away from the office means the bond with our colleagues has been weakened.
In addition to the MUTV staff, it was wonderful to spend some time with the football department again and each player made a point of fist-bumping and greeting us as they made their way out onto the pitch for the warm-up, although maybe this isn't the right word as my laptop was suggesting the temperature was touching 30 degrees.
Seeing the smiling faces, the optimism and enthusiasm for the new season, made it feel like I was part of Manchester United again.
And I hope that was the same for those who made the trip to Pride Park to support the Reds.
Their backing was consistently vocal and you could tell they were enjoying themselves after so long waiting for this opportunity again. As the sun beat down, they went through the classic songbook and it was great to hear some of the old chants for the first time in months and months. Even the late Ralphie Milne got a mention, as did Andy Cole, who was part of our team as an expert summariser with MUTV.
There were songs for Axel Tuanzebe and opening goalscorer Tahith Chong, and it dawned on me that these current players have been missing that personal level of backing. If I've missed supporters being at grounds, you can only begin to wonder what it has been like for the footballers themselves.
Jesse Lingard was popular and engaged with a number of those in attendance; of course, he had a loan spell at Derby earlier in his career. Lee Grant received a big ovation from the home crowd after his ties with the Rams and gave his shirt to one lucky supporter at the end. The link between the away end and the Reds was also clear after the final whistle: everyone seemed delighted to be there.
Wayne Rooney received a lot of affection, naturally, from our fans – even if he admitted he could not acknowledge any of the acclaim during the match. Having seen the likes of Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce criticised by their own support for doing this in the past, it would appear a wise decision.
And one thing that did stir the senses again was the fact there was a bit of toing and froing between the two sets of fans. Yes, we may have heard the chants many a time before but not for so long.
This was rivalry returning to a certain degree, sparked by a song suggesting Roy Keane wears a magic hat. As a former Nottingham Forest star, our former skipper is probably not a favourite of the Pride Park faithful. It felt reassuring – so much about watching football is experiencing the banter between the supporters, relishing the competition and desire for success.
If the result is never really important in pre-season friendlies, this occasion certainly was.
It felt like a big step towards being reunited and this will only strengthen further in the coming weeks, particularly when Old Trafford is allowed to be full again to all pull in the one direction – spurring the Reds to success.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.