Whichever way you want to judge it, Sheffield United’s supporters have been locked out of Bramall Lane for too long. Shorn of their support, United have floundered to a long-inevitable relegation. As and when it happens, the club that many Blades fans return to will scarcely resemble the one they left behind last March.
A small step towards normality was taken this afternoon, when a few thousand fans were allowed back into Bramall Lane to bid farewell to the top-flight as United faced Burnley. It still wasn’t the same, at one of English football’s great old grounds that generated one of the Premier League’s most raucous atmospheres at its best last season. But after almost 15 months of stadia standing empty, it was a damn sight closer than the turgid, sanitised and sterile atmosphere we have become accustomed to because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first signs of normality were all around. The pre-match traffic around the stadium – rarely can anyone have been so happy to have been stuck behind stationery cars on the Bramall Lane roundabout – and the burger van behind what is normally the away end.
Driving up Bramall Lane on a top-flight matchday, to the sight of the odd student or passer-by only, was a depressing experience. It still wasn’t the same, with only the odd family queuing to get back in. But it was a damn sight closer.
Inside, United’s matchday announcer Gary Sinclair delivered an emotional monologue just before kick-off; his voice cracking with emotion as he read out the names of Blades who had fallen over the past year. Players, officials and supporters then fell silent to remember them, the only noise the swirling rain hammering the stadium roof. A poignant moment that struck the perfect note.
It took only about a minute after kick-off for the first song in tribute to former boss Chris Wilder to emanate from the Kop – It was our sixth year in Division One, and Chris Wilder came home… He’s taking us to the very top, he’s one of our own…’ – and then, Sinclair invited those present to take part in a minute’s applause to remember Len Badger.
The United legend, a Blade from birth to death, passed away in midweek. United’s players wore black armbands in his honour, his image looked down over them as they started brightly against Burnley. “God bless you, Badge,” Sinclair said over the stadium tannoy.
Aaron Ramsdale, who was crowned United’s player of the year before kick-off, finally had his first experience as a senior player of hearing the Greasy Chip Butty song from the Kop as he ran towards them before kick-off. It was a moment he had been looking forward to since he re-joined the Blades in the summer, and those assembled behind him did not disappoint. It wasn’t quite the same. But after hearing it pumped artificially over the stadium speakers all season to that point, it was a damn sight closer.
The England U21 goalkeeper celebrated his deserved award with an early save from Dwight McNeil – England’s number one, the Kop sang behind him – and Josh Brownhill seemed to adopt the role of pantomime villain when he was nailed in a tackle by George Baldock, who was booked. Brownhill stayed down before getting to his feet and joining in with play moments later, and the crowd didn’t let him forget it either until he was withdrawn at half-time.
By then, United led 1-0 courtesy of David McGoldrick’s 10th goal of the season and, amazingly, his first Premier League strike in front of his own supporters. His name rung long into the Sheffield air, a player loved equally by fans and teammates who had earlier voted him their players’ player of the season. It was the first Blades goal these home fans had seen in person since Billy Sharp’s winner against Norwich last March, which kept up United’s push for Europe.
Much has changed since, but the celebrations for some were no less enthusiastic. It still wasn’t the same, but reacquainting their knees with the back of the seat in front was a damn sight better than leaping off the sofa at home.
Many chose to do that, however. United did not release an attendance figure but a large number of the 5,000 seats made available to home fans seemed to have gone unsold – perhaps unsurprisingly, too, given the backlash to United’s decision to price them at £40 for adults and £20 for juniors after a year of a global pandemic, mass redundancies and furlough and fans forcibly detached from the club and game they love.
Those who chose to stay away missed out on a rare commodity this season in the form of a victory, but hopefully made their point to the club’s hierarchy that such unreasonable ticketing will not be tolerated. United deserve – and have received – much credit for their pricing of season tickets, and must be prepared for the criticism when it comes too. Priced reasonably, tickets for the first glimpse of United in almost 15 months would have been snapped up in hours. Lessons to be learned both on and off the pitch from this season.
The biggest one, from a fan perspective, may be to never take football for granted again. The away days with friends and family, hours spent on the motorway more in hope than expectation of a performance and a result. The pre-match and post-game debrief in the boozer and making of plans for the next time. Everything that comes with this great game, and has been taken away from us all in one way or another.
It wasn’t the same. But it was a giant leap forwards and suddenly, as United’s iconic anthem rang around Bramall Lane to close out a hard-fought and deserved victory, we felt a damn sight closer to normality than we have been for far, far too long.