"Nature is healing" - The emotional Sheffield United fan who admits he might CRY at kick-off against Doncaster Rovers, after 17 months away from game

In ordinary circumstances, and with no disrespect intended, a pre-season trip over the border into Doncaster for a midweek friendly in July would not get the pulse racing for the majority of Sheffield United supporters.

Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 12:00 pm

But these are not ordinary circumstances and when Slavisa Jokanović’s men run out at the Keepmoat Stadium this evening to face their League One neighbours Doncaster Rovers, they will be greeted by a sold-out away following of over 3,000.

Those with tickets will be following the Blades away from home for the first time since March 3, 2020, when United beat Reading in extra-time in the FA Cup at the Madejski Stadium and the Covid-19 pandemic was in its infancy.

In the almost 17 months since, those supporters have instead been reduced to watching their team on television and the connection many enjoyed with United, and even football as a whole, has suffered as a result.

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One of those was Sam Ridley. A fan who spent thousands per season following United up and down the country each away day, and a season-ticket holder on the Kop, he admitted in March this year – a year to the day since the first Covid-19 lockdown was imposed on the UK – that he used to plan his week around matchday. “Now I couldn’t tell you when United are next playing without checking or having someone tell me,” he said.

He likened last season’s Premier League season, which saw United relegated with a whimper without any of their fans in grounds, to a Netflix show. “A very long and boring one,” he added. “For the first time in years, I can count on my hands the number of games I have watched. Losing a game is forgotten about in little more than an hour, and the same if we win.”

Ridley will be at the Keepmoat tomorrow evening, feeling “like a kid at Christmas” with excitement. He may even, he admits, shed a tear at kick-off.

Over 3,000 Blades are expected to follow their side at Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium (George Wood/Getty Images)

“A new season brings new hope,” he said, “and although that detachment I felt last season hasn’t gone yet, being back in grounds will quickly change that I think. The players won’t just be TV characters any more. They will be able to hear and feel our presence and we’ll be able to help them and cheer them on again.

“The whole day out, with a few beers on the journey and spending time with mates before watching the game, was the basic principle of the Chris Wilder journey, I think. It was an escape from everyday life and I think it had a big effect on a lot of people when it was taken away.”

Although the official attendance for the last game of last season, at home to Burnley, was never publicly confirmed, there is a possibility that more United fans will be at their first pre-season game of this campaign than at the last Premier League game of the previous one. If not more, it certainly won’t be far off.

Sam Ridley and his football friends at Norwich City's Carrow Road (Sam Ridley)

“I think renewed optimism is the fairest way to describe how I feel,” Ridley, who attended the Tramlines festival at the weekend, added. “After Chris Wilder, there weren’t many names you’d pick to lead the charge to take us back up.

“But more importantly, the return of full crowds is what we’ve all longed for. For a lot, me included, it was all or nothing.

“After Tramlines at the weekend, it’s like nature is healing. Maybe things are moving too fast, but it’s good to see life going back to something like how we knew it before the pandemic.

“And if I don’t shed a tear on Wednesday night, I’m sure I will on August 7 when the Greasy Chip Butty song gets sung loud and proud by a packed out Bramall Lane.”