While the Premier League returned after its interruption of 100 days, some things have remained the same, but other symbolised the new world, those who play the game and those who watch it should now occupy.
The eyes of the world are trained on the vast, empty spaces of a stage located right next to the M6 to Birmingham then a burst of normality was returning with the resumption of a season interrupted by the outbreak of coronavirus.
At Aston Villa, old arguments have resurfaced in 45 minutes while a blatant failure of the technology, goalline has served a huge injustice to the visitors to Sheffield United. The watch of the referee Michael Oliver has not been activated when the goalkeeper of Aston Villa, Orjan Nyland, has fallen well behind his line, squeezing the free-kick from Oliver Norwood.
This has resulted in a layer of controversy to a game that had a strange fascination then as “Project Restart” has finally borne fruit.
The stage may have been surrounded by silence, because this match took place behind closed doors, but there was a true volume, the power and the emotion behind the statement made by the players and officials at kick-off.
The whistle of the referee Michael Oliver, the players have taken the knee with a choreography perfect for 10 seconds to support the movement Black Lives Matter.
This is the enduring image of a few hours which gave us a preview of what it will be in the foreseeable future. It was preceded by a minute of silence for those who lost their lives due to the coronavirus.
It was an experience and an environment that is very different – but we live in a very different world from the one left by the Premier League when Aston Villa lost 4-0 to Leicester City on 9 march.
When you have left the M6 and you’re headed to Villa Park, you can see that the old haunts and gathering places were not the mass seething usual bordeaux and blue. The hotel Holte, nestled in a corner near the famous Holte End of the stadium was locked and silent, only a few lights inside.
Instead of the usual hubbub, there was calm, although it has been broken by a huge thunder and lightning just after the coach of the team of Sheffield United has entered in the parking area behind the booth of Witton Lane.
While the floodlights of Villa Park took full effect, they have provided a spectacular backdrop to the large stimulus, while the media passed through the controls of a high-security, including testing of temperature of high-technology before being allowed to enter.
Just below the media space, the sound of the music pouring emerged from the changing rooms while players were trying to create their own atmosphere.
The areas were divided into green, amber and red with a disinfection strict and a system of walking one-way operation – all superbly efficient and well-organized by Aston Villa, the club first out of the block in this context.
Among the empty seats, there was a view poignant – a jacket steward Aston Villa placed in the memory of the father of manager Dean Smith, Ron, who was in the habit to play what role and who died at the age of 79 years after having contracted a coronavirus.
While the players warmed themselves, and that those of us in the margins watching, Villa has at least tried to inject some atmosphere with a soundtrack of heavy metal on the pa system before the players classify them separately.
It was somewhat incongruous, then, that the advertiser of Villa was on the ads team, welcoming suddenly the return of John McGinn after his long absence, the stadium itself festooned with flags, banners (including one as far away as Prague) and blankets to at least add a pinch of colour to any occasion anesthetized.
I have already attended a match behind closed doors, when England made a draw 0-0 with Croatia in Rijeka in October 2018, but there was without doubt a sense of dislocation even greater here. As it was bound to happen, even those of us who were lucky enough to be inside were socially remote, taking precautions now customary to wear masks.
The countdown to the kick-off and the faces of the fans watching at home flicker on the big screen were all attempts are eye-catching to get an adrenaline rush, but the sight of the teams, ranking them separately, not shake hands and only the odd nudge in the margin, put this new reality into relief.
The game itself was not a classic and it would be illusory to talk about it, ignoring the fact that this will be an unsatisfactory experience for many traditionalists. Football needs fans, but for the moment it is the First League like it should be.
There was no restraint of the players, either physically or in terms of encouraging verbal, although those who were expecting a blizzard of bad language after the watershed would have been disappointed.
The screams were mostly encouraging, the manager of Blades Chris Wilder is the manager of the most vocal and the most visible, spending much more time on the touchline with assistant Alan Knill as his counterpart in Villa Smith.
There were cries of pain, while Jack Grealish has felt the full force of some of the challenges, while Villa took advantage of the new rules by using four substitutes in the second half.
So many things were new. It was so strange. Let’s say it – all of this seemed sometimes very strange.
It is also necessary to say is that every precaution and every step is necessary in the current climate when the sport is not the top priority in this pandemic, but that the Premier League had to begin again.
The nature of warm game will undoubtedly lead eyebrows among those who are not in favour of the football without fans, but it should also say that this game could unfold in exactly the same way in front of a Villa Park crowded.
The muscle memory is still in the game with the players and make no mistake, they have been committed – as is evidenced by the screams and moans of frustration of players from both sides when Oliver whistled the last course of the match after six minutes of stoppage time.
There was almost a sense of relief among all of us within Villa Park that, with all its surreal elements, and unusual, was the gap – although the Blades feed the sense of injustice in sport.
This was not a thriller at the Villa but it was a beginning and it is something that many have waited for 100 days.