Sheffield United prepare for long-awaited return of fans for Birmingham City clash after 17 months of struggle
Exactly 17 months. Five hundred and 18 days. Almost 12,500 hou… well, you get the drift.
Whichever way you look at it, Sheffield United fans have been away from Bramall Lane for far too long and for many, that feeling of returning ‘home’ will come back this weekend when their beloved Blades take on Birmingham City.
In the year and five months since the 1-0 win over Norwich, which consolidated United’s unlikely push for a place in Europe, so much has changed.
New manager, new division. It is an inevitable fact that some fans will return to their same seats but some familiar faces may be missing. Those Blades you shared a couple of hours with every other Saturday afternoon, and the odd midweek evening. Some may have passed to a higher league.
There have been the odd glimpse of normality returning in recent weeks and months. First, a few thousand fans were allowed in to Bramall Lane for the final game of last season, at home to Burnley. There were a few signs of what football used to be like; the pre-match traffic, the Greasy Chip Butty song before kick-off.
But it was a Premier League game played largely with the crowd of a pre-season friendly and only when over 3,000 Blades packed the away end of Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium recently did it really begin to feel like real football again.
It was Aaron Ramsdale’s first experience of a packed away end as a senior Blades player and, if Arsenal get their way and prise him away this summer, there might not be too many more.
Both Luke Freeman and manager Slavisa Jokanović enthused about the support they received at Doncaster afterwards, long after those jubilant fans had filed out of the away end and dispersed into the night. Eulogising about support can be one of the most overused platitudes in football. But make no mistake, after seeing the effect a season-and-a-bit without fans can have, these lads meant every word.
It remains to be seen how football fits into a Covid-19 world. Will fans feel comfortable about returning to Bramall Lane again, at least in the early days? Will those who do attend be asked to wear masks or socially distance? Will so-called vaccine passports become a thing?
What is the human cost of Covid-19? How many businesses, who rely on football so much for their income, will have survived? Will the landlady of your favourite pre-match boozer still be behind the bar, or will the bloke who runs the burger van have had to sell up over lockdown?
How will the old knees cope with being scalped by the seat in front of you on the Kop when United score and you jump up, having been spoiled by so long watching in the comfort of your living room? How many fans will cry as the first strains of the Greasy Chip Butty ring around Bramall Lane, as one fan suggested he might recently?
There are as many questions as answers but one thing is for sure; there is a hardcore of support that has been looking forward to this day for a hell of a long time. For around 17 months, or 518 days or so, to be exact.