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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: We’ve waited too long so make it better than ever

We have waited a long time for this. It is just over 17 months since all four divisions played on a Saturday afternoon in front of unrestricted attendances.

West Bromwich Albion fans in the stands celebrate
West Bromwich Albion fans in the stands celebrate

The return of the Premier League today, and with it many capacity crowds, ends a grim period in the game’s history when matches were played in the absence of those who mattered most.

So much has changed since the life we knew before lockdown and the football landscape we are returning to will not look the same.

There are those who want to pick up the old routines as quickly as they were put down in March 2020.

Back in a football ground. This is ridiculously exciting, given what has gone before. A day with friends, the people we love, at a football match. This is our time again, thinking of the things we used to do.

During the midst of those dark lockdowns the return of a normal match day seemed so distant and remote. And now it is here, there is something quite surreal about it all. This will be such a good day for so many.

But for others there will be apprehension, a nervousness about returning to once familiar territory.

Having spent so long being told to avoid each other, avoid contact, it will be strange to cram into concourses and shuffle up stairways to our seats once more.

Some won’t like it. Some might never return. Covid-19 still poses a serious threat, it has not gone away. The vulnerable may decide it is not worth their while setting foot inside a stadium ever again. Others may have passed on all together. It’s a long time, a year and a half. Life has moved on for so many.

The first day is one to look ahead. The beginning of a new season, the blank canvas of opportunity and the fresh hope running through our veins.

What a relief to put the 2020/21 season behind us; as near meaningless as imaginable, serving only to distract during a deadly pandemic. With no social contact, supporters’ voices in the stadiums, bars and cafes were silent.

Instead, the outlets for fans came on more artificial social media platforms where measured opinion and discussion can often become swamped with reactionary shouting.

Some voices felt louder and more intrusive than they should have done. As with society, a polarising of opinion and division often replaced the more measured conversations of normal life.

Of course, football is a release from the pressure valve of that life, but it would be good to know the return to full stands does not lead to a mischannelling of passions. Football is tribal but it doesn’t have to be vitriol. Energy and partisanship make full stadiums the best places to be. Full of people.

For away supporters the matchday ritual is often enhanced. The senses heightened. The journey, the scene-setting.

How long it has been since those train journeys, the meet-ups at stations across the land? Or the coach convoys into the territory of an adversary?

It is a cultural experience moulded around a football match. A day of exploration and adventure. Nothing beats the camaraderie of an away day win, because it is about the people you are with, as much as anything else.

Today is a day we will not take for granted ever again.

There have been moments when football has tested us over these last 17 months.

Times when the fixtures represented nothing more than glorified training sessions.

Times when VAR intervened in a sport that had already had its soul ripped out. Sat at home watching a delay in a game we should have been at while men in faraway bunkers drew lines across the screen and pronounced that the player in red’s toe was millimetres ahead of the player in blue’s backside and therefore the goal must be overturned.

Times when we just reached for the remote control and turned it all off. It did not go unnoticed by the suits. A less intrusive version of VAR is on its way for 2021/22.

The symbolic taking of the knee will remain for many players.

“It is very simple – we are protesting against racism,” said Jordan Henderson this week, just in case anyone still hasn’t worked it out.

After all, if we cannot respect a peaceful act for a few seconds before a game then what sort of society have we become?

The social conscience of England’s players throughout the pandemic has been inspirational, culminating in the way they carried themselves at the European Championships.

The Henderson-led Players Together charitable fund supporting the NHS and Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign are just two examples that have made a real difference to those who need it most in society.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s huge personal donation to Wolves’ Feed Our Pack project was another illustration of the good that can come from adversity.

We have all been profoundly affected by what has gone on during this period in history.

To emerge from it undamaged is wishful thinking, but to have more awareness for those around us is not too much to ask. Perhaps it is time to end the poverty chanting that may once have passed for banter but was never more than a bad joke.

Would it be too much to hope that a post-pandemic football experience can offer a better version of what we loved before? Football is not really about the results. It is about inclusivity and community. We win and lose but most importantly we do it together. Football is about the people.

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