A year without fans has been horrible for Sheffield United - but the day for a return will come, and will be glorious
Billy Sharp rose acrobatically to head John Lundstram’s pinpoint cross past Tim Krul and, in the South Yorkshire sunshine that March afternoon, Sheffield United’s unlikely push for Europe was still on.
Bramall Lane erupted, fans hugged, Sharp and his teammates celebrated in front of the travelling Norwich fans who had been giving him stick all game. Life felt good. Felt normal. Then everything very quickly changed.
That game was a year ago today and although no-one present knew it at the time, of course, was the last of football as we know it.
Football had already taken little steps in the face of a growing concern over coronavirus cases. The pre-match handshakes had been stopped, while some of the 31,379 fans in the crowd wore masks.
But in the week that followed, chaos unfolded. A pandemic was officially declared on March 11 but Liverpool’s match with Atletico Madrid went ahead at Anfield, in front of over 50,000 fans. Incredibly, 3,000 of those were from Madrid - and at that stage, the Spanish capital accounted for more than half of the country’s cases of Covid-19.
That weekend United were scheduled to travel to Newcastle, having moved to sixth in the Premier League table - and just two points off Chelsea in fourth - by beating Norwich.
At the 11th hour, a planned charity sleepout at Bramall Lane was cancelled and football soon followed, after it emerged that Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had tested positive for the virus.
The game was postponed for 100 days and after months of speculation, rumour and panic, returned in June, with United travelling to Aston Villa. Ever since, it has football - just not at all as we know it.
Everyone understands the necessity of it, and there is a wider issue at play with people still losing their lives to a deadly virus, but Premier League games played behind closed doors - even in the words of those lucky few who are permitted entry - are frankly rubbish.
Completely sanitised, even the fake crowd noise pumped in by TV companies just serves to amplify the emptiness of these vast Premier League grounds.
No club has missed their fans more than United and although their miserable season cannot be explained away solely by playing behind closed doors, that factor cannot be overlooked either.
“The matches haven’t been that different when we finished ninth last season,” Blades boss Chris Wilder said recently, “and I firmly believe the fans helped us turn defeats into draws and draws into wins back then. They would have done it this year too.”
The edge United gained at Bramall Lane has gone. There are anomalies, like the wins over Spurs and Chelsea at the back end of last season, but they have proved the exception rather than the rule.
In the FA Cup quarter final last season, United trailed Arsenal to a 25th-minute penalty at Bramall Lane, before David McGoldrick equalised with three minutes to go.
Ordinarily, the Lane would be bouncing and had fans been allowed in, Chris Wilder believes his side would have won it and reached the semis, at least.
Instead, the game - as so many have in lockdown - reverted to something more like a training match and Arsenal prevailed in the last minute when a player on loan from Real Madrid netted the winner.
That game was the first at Bramall Lane that Dave Hardisty had missed in 48 years, going back to a 1-1 draw with Manchester United in 1972. He faked illness to get time off work when the miners’ strike saw games played on midweek afternoons, and was helped over a wall by some Leeds fans after the Kop was declared full and he was locked out.
More recently, he fell while walking in the Lake District and was airlifted to hospital with a fractured skull and broken eye socket. But he was at Bramall Lane that weekend.
Nothing, it seemed, could keep him away. But then Covid hit and as with the thousands of devoted Blades like him, their only connection with their club in the year that has passed has been via their television screens.
That has only served to increase the frustration at what has been a miserable season so far. Shorn of both their 12th man and some of their key ones as well, including Jack O’Connell for basically the entire season and the likes of Sander Berge, John Egan and John Fleck for varying parts of it, United have struggled for form, consistency and, ultimately, results.
They go into next weekend’s clash at Leicester City bottom of the table and facing up to a Championship return.
But is there light at the end of the tunnel? The success of the vaccine rollout has raised the possibility of fans possibly being allowed back into Premier League grounds this season and although in all likelihood that will prove far too late to affect United’s survival hopes, it would provide such a boost for those Blades for whom United is such a big part of their lives.
The elderly Blade whose only real social interaction these days is taking the seat he’s occupied for the last 50 years, and the friends he’s made along the way.
The middle-aged Blades who go to Bramall Lane to escape the pressures of their lives, and have had their mental health affected by a loss of routine and feeling of helplessness.
The young Blades who have missed seeing their heroes in the flesh after football was reduced to a reality TV show for over 12 months.
We will all get back soon. The day will come. The first few lines of Annie’s Song will crackle over the PA system, and the Blades fans will do the rest. The pubs around the ground will dust off their taps. The ‘Programmes, three fifty’ man’s voice will boom down Bramall Lane again.
And it will be glorious.