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Final Third: Excitement and a little trepidation as a season starts without the fans

The new normal: Sheffield United and Wolves resume hostilities without a crowd on Monday

EXCITED, enthusiastic, relieved? Christmas might yet be cancelled but the football season is back and I’m just not sure how I feel about it.

The resumption and eventual conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign was a triumphant moment in a miserable, uncertain time, as necessary as it was unlikely. Albeit missing several crucial ingredients — namely supporters and the involvement of any team playing below Championship level.

Ready for more of the same seven weeks later? I’m not sure, really.

Fortunately this time the entire EFL is involved and the Women’s Super League is also back.

The return of those divisions after six months away is a development worth celebrating and getting excited about, although uncertainty continues to surround the non-leagues and the lower divisions of Scottish football.

And the fans? Well, we’re still locked out, forced to stay home and watch on television, tablet or phone at a time when being encouraged to get out of the house to undertake marginally less enjoyable practices like working for a living and paying the bills.

Get on the tube, buy a sandwich for lunch, but don’t get the train to some far-flung outpost on a Saturday morning or burn the roof of your mouth on something claiming to be a half-time pie. This, of course, is entirely understandable. The average workplace is more likely to be able to adopt the required levels of social distancing than the average football ground and, while chatting at the watercooler requires a slightly heightened state of caution these days, it remains doable.

Celebrating a late goal in close quarters to several dozen equally ecstatic supporters without sharing more than communal joy is not.

So, understandable, but unsustainable too.

Just this week we heard it was ‘critical’ fans are back in stadiums soon if clubs are too survive. And that plea was made specifically about the Premier League. Imagine the state of play further down the ladder where gate receipts, not TV revenue, are the primary source of income — a revenue stream teams have been without for six months and counting. The definition of a football fan has changed over the past 20 years from some mad sort who spent their Saturday afternoons crammed into a stadium following the fortunes of their team to a more inclusive model where knowledge of the game — gleaned from TV, video games and social media — is wider and probably greater, but where first-hand experience of the noise, sights, smells and intangible sub-plots and side dishes of a real-life trip to football is less important. Coronavirus has only accelerated that process.

So wall-to-wall access to football on a variety of platforms is great but the game needs its supporters back in stadiums now more than ever, and not only for the obvious financial reasons.

So, excited? Of course I am. But also a little bit nervous about what comes next.