“Hello football. Lovely to see you, finally. Really missed you.”
Ten minutes before kick-off in Wednesday’s match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United – the first in the Premier League since the season was suspended three months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic – Gary Lineker summed up the feeling of football fans everywhere.
Football was back, and boy were we glad it was.
It didn’t take long to feel as if football had never been away. Technology controversy dominated an otherwise fairly dull, goalless draw at Villa Park, before last season’s Premier League champions Manchester City breezed past Arsenal 3-0.
But with social distancing measures in force and a lack of fans inside the stadiums, this was a sign of what – for the forseeable future – will be the new normal when it comes to watching Premier League matches. This is how some of those watching found the experience.
Fake fans in the living room and pubs in sheds
In Birmingham, fans did their best to make up for not being inside the ground.
A couple of hardy souls braved the rain and set up a gazebo over a bench across the road from Villa Park, making do with at least being able to see the ground, while watching the action on a tablet.
Those watching at home also did their best to replicate the experience of either watching the game at the ground, or with fellow supporters in the pub.
Justine did her best to make her Villa-supporting husband feel like he was at the Sheffield United game – as this picture shows.
Meanwhile, Liverpool fan Sam had clearly been very productive during lockdown, doing what perhaps many of us dream of – turning his garden shed into a pub.
How did fans find the match-watching experience?
For those watching the action at home, they had the option to watch the game with either pre-recorded crowd noises or just with the live stadium sounds – predominantly the shouts of players and their managers echoing around the empty grounds.
When we asked on our live text commentary page which they preferred, it was a pretty close-run thing.
A select few fans did get to watch the game from ‘inside’ the ground.
At both Villa Park and Etihad Stadium, fans from both teams were shown on giant video screens – reacting to big decisions, near misses and, of course, goals.
‘Missing the crowd’ but still ‘enjoyable’ – the view from within the ground
BBC Radio 5 live commentary John Murray at Etihad Stadium: “We’ve watched a decent game here but I have really missed a crowd. Really missed it.
“It is one of the things that makes big time football – big crowds, noisy crowds, reacting to important moments in the game. It makes it for everyone.
“We need it and it can’t come back quickly enough.”
Former Chelsea winger and BBC Radio 5 live co-commentator Pat Nevin, who was also at Etihad Stadium: “I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
“I remember why I watched football. I watch football for the artistry of it and the entertainment on the pitch. No, it was not as good but I still saw plenty of that – Kevin de Bruyne provided much of it, but I can watch this.”