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stadium delight Return of fans shows there’s nothing better than the real thing

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Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke celebrates scoring against Arsenal in front of the fans at Selhurst Park on Wednesday. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/PA Wire

Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke celebrates scoring against Arsenal in front of the fans at Selhurst Park on Wednesday. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/PA Wire

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Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke celebrates scoring against Arsenal in front of the fans at Selhurst Park on Wednesday. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/PA Wire

It is one of the contradictions of this strangest of seasons that, just as it was coming to a slow death on the pitch, there is real life off it.

The end feels like a start. After a long period where it felt the Premier League was little more than a conveyor belt of content the matches just mechanically getting played for the sake of it – there is compelling human emotion and excitement with the return of supporters.

The distraction of the games was obviously welcome amid the worst of the winter lockdown, but there’s nothing better than the real thing.

That will perhaps be the most lasting consequence of an otherwise forgettable season, and how 2020/’21 can be the welcome inverse of 2019/’20. The great shutdown can be followed by the grand reunion.

The season started with football showing that the show could go on without an audience – in the way that had seemed to fit with some of the most dystopian predictions about the game as a “product” – only for the importance of fans to be illustrated with full voice by the campaign’s end.

It was not just that the energy of the supporters infused teams with more energy of course, suddenly adding technicolor to a world that had been in black and white.

It was that they fully asserted that power, in the whirlwind three days of the Super League crisis.

The moment when Chelsea supporters were told that their club were withdrawing from the offensively preposterous project was the most electrifying of the whole season. It had real emotion. It had real impact. It had meaning. That was when the game really came together.

It is reflective of the campaign that such a moment came off the pitch, and outside the stadium.

There are fair questions over what this season will otherwise be remembered for, if it is to be remembered at all. What great moments were there? What great matches were there? What will its impact be on the game’s collective consciousness?

Alisson Becker’s winning header will obviously be up there, but the very sight of a goalkeeper just scoring a goal retains a surreal quality that fits with the general sense of displacement, of everything being skewed.

Beyond that, there were some Leeds United moves and some fine goals, perhaps crowned by Manuel Lanzini’s spectacular equaliser that completed West Ham United’s 3-3 comeback against Tottenham Hotspur.

That match was part of a series that included Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Liverpool, Manchester United’s 9-0 victory over Southampton, both Chelsea matches against West Brom and both of those jaw-dropping wins on the same day Manchester United 1-6 Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool.

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Those shocks were so disorienting, and pointed to such disruption, that it did look like we could be in store for the most unpredictable season ever seen; that the absence of supporters could at least be a factor in one great positive.

There was giddy talk of “another Leicester City”, of clubs like Everton and Aston Villa winning the title again.

That energy gradually, then quickly, dissipated. Now, at the end, not even Leicester are that close. We go into the final day with Brendan Rodgers’ side out of the Champions League places. The top four are the wealthiest four, and virtually in order. The champions are the wealthiest club, and by a comfortable distance.

For all the early ructions, it ended up more predictable than ever: the richest coming out on top.

The Super League may have gone away, but the issues that caused it haven’t. Immense financial disparity, to a level that is threatening football’s unpredictability, remains as influential as ever.

The game has a moment it should not squander, but feels like it could. The only residual energy from the Super League ructions seems to be around Old Trafford, and aimed at the Glazers. The absence of real punishment for the Super League six doesn’t suggest revolution.

There has also been a stasis in terms of tactics, to go with the status quo remaining the same. There was no leap forward. How could there be with so little time to train?

All the recent realities remained the same, as a consequence. Jose Mourinho was still past it. Carlo Ancelotti was just passive. Sam Allardyce’s approach has run its course, as his streak of keeping teams up came to an end. Thomas Tuchel’s tactical sophistication proved superior to Frank Lampard’s vague instructions.

The only real innovation was adaptation, as Pep Guardiola figured out how to work around the season’s unprecedentedly intense schedule before anyone else.

It was still mostly just a case of making do. That was the story of the season. Just getting by, getting on with it. It is why it felt so emotionless, so forgettable.

This isn’t to say that its results should be dismissed or discounted. They will rightfully go down in the records without any asterisks.

It’s just that it’s fair to wonder how they will actually be remembered, when there was no one there to experience any of it.

This isn’t quite the philosophical question of whether a football match really has any impact if there are no fans around to watch it, but it’s not too far off.

Fans do so much more than just watch, after all. They contribute, they influence, they make the moment. They make the memories, and are the people who enjoy the memories.

When you think of any great Premier League moment, like, say, the departing Sergio Aguero’s famous winner against Queen’s Park Rangers, you’re not just remembering the strike of the ball, or even the celebration of the players.

You’re remembering the bedlam all around it, and how people react. The images in the stands are as important as the images on the pitch.

This season, there’s barely any of that. There are no images of humanity to go with images of sporting application. There were just empty stands, lending to that wider feeling of emptiness.

The final week has reminded us of that, with full voice.

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