Manchester United placed a banner directly behind the Stretford End goal where supporters would normally congregate.
It wears a quote attributed to legendary Manchester United boss Sir Matt Busby saying: “Football is nothing without the fans. “
And on cold nights like this, with the passion far removed from what has traditionally been one of the most intense occasions in British football, the message carried even more weight than normal as Manchester United and Manchester City played a soulless and dismal derby stalemate at Old Trafford.
279 days ago, United beat City 2-0 in front of crowded and bubbling Old Trafford, dealing decisive damage to the Premier League title aspirations of their main rivals last season.
This was yet another graphic example of how times have changed and there must be some sympathy for the players performing in such a barren atmosphere instead of the pure theater that was seen on March 8.
Even the addition of 2,000 fans under new rules has transformed the atmosphere inside the stadiums they are allowed to attend, but with Manchester in lockdown third and no supporters allowed at all, this has been passed ahead of many. vast empty grandstands accompanied by the soundtrack of screams from players and backstage staff on both sides.
Any fans who wished they could be here may have been quickly put off by the overly cautious and cat-and-mouse approach of Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola.
It was a game that started, ended and nothing happened in between. Local honor was met in a very unsatisfying game.
There are bound to be games where fans miss more than most – even the presence of a few would have raised the mood and at least provided positive incentives for two teams seemingly more determined not to lose than to win.
The supporters may have just provided that extra layer of inspiration, especially in some very uneventful closing minutes, but that’s the current climate and ultimately this game got the result it deserved.
The scoreless end result seemed inevitable for most of the second half, which was only brought out of its torpor when referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a penalty after Kyle Walker’s lunge knocked Marcus Rashford down.
If there was any excitement for a few seconds, it soon ended when VAR stepped in to rightly rule that Rashford was offside before being knocked down by Walker.
And that was about it.
Manchester United will be glad they didn’t lose after RB Leipzig’s error-strewn defeat that kicked them out of the Champions League midweek.
Solskjaer may rightly point to a decent position in the Premier League, but there is no doubt that fresh and perfectly understandable questions about his handling at elite level have once again been raised following a chaotic performance in Germany.
It was a solid display from Manchester United but lacked threat, one again looked sideways by the summer acquisition of £ 40million from Ajax, Donny van de Beek.
As United struggled for a creative spark and Solskjaer handed the midfield work to Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay, he had to wonder what to do to get started.
On the other hand, he might have just been happy not to have one as those 90 minutes of slag rolled out.
Manchester City were clearly not in the mood to be caught in the counterattack, as happened when Solskjaer United overtook the Premier League last season, but it took an advantage over their own attacking efforts .
This has resulted in a surprising lack of ambition on both sides, chances and quality almost nonexistent, even the polls of Kevin de Bruyne unable to forge serious opportunities.
The final whistle drew polite applause from observers and backstage teams, but it was a world away from the usual sound and fury of a Manchester derby, a state of affairs reflected by the shy approach on the ground.
United are now just four points behind leaders Tottenham which is hardly a crisis position given the criticism raining down on them this season, as City are one point and one adrift.
However, it was a desperately poor spectacle stripped of the kind of excitement associated with both teams in this game, and the lack of atmosphere and encouragement from Stretford End and the rest of Old Trafford played its part.
The return of fans to some pitches has only highlighted how much they have been missed – their absence here for this terrible Manchester derby has marked time.